Saturday, October 31, 2015

Pancit ng bayan

IN this country, we rise or fall but never without pancit (rice noodles). We prepare this for birthdays and anniversaries. At wakes, the final judgment on cooks rests on the degree of saltiness of this noodle dish.

We are a nation of pancit critics because everyone eats pancit.

The best pancit is cooked by our mothers and grandmothers; the worst, by the unconverted who snips the tangled yellow skeins into manageable length. Since uncut noodles augur long life, shortening the pancit strands threatens our only chance to hit the jackpot: good health.

My sister, who has lived too long outside the country, pooh-poohs this superstition. Our national predilection for pancit conspires against our health, she harangues.

Though made of rice, pancit is both viand and staple. In family gatherings, we show our devotion to this unholy starchy combination by piling our plate with rice and pancit.

Teenage boys go through a rite of passage that involves satisfying pre-dinner hunger with at least two orders of instant pancit canton and as many cups of rice. The phase is mercifully cut short when they discover the sabotaging effects of belly jelly on adolescent crush.

Whether eaten as fiesta fare or merienda, the pancit-and-rice combo tests our resolution to stay fit or vulnerability to childhood comforts. Although my sister is right about the nutritional contradictions in pancit-and-rice, there is perfect logic in this pairing, from the Pinoy perspective of “lami (taste)”.

Bland, boiled rice is the perfect foil for pancit, salty and greasy, two flavors that are quintessentially Pinoy. Those coils of rice flour can hide a great number of things. Distracting is the colorful collage of spring onion, carrot, bell pepper, and cabbage.

However, for more carnal palates, pancit’s epiphany does not emanate from “sagbot (forage)” but from the orgasmic intercourse of flavors from dried shrimp, pork, liver, gizzard, smoked fish, boiled egg, deep-fried pork fat and crunchy skin, Chinese chorizo, and chicken broth.

As if the salt and lard from the garnishing are not enough, some pancit dishes also demand a drenching. For instance, pancit palabok is a volcano of dietary traps smouldering under a lava of shrimp sauce.

A garish orange, palabok sauce should set off klaxons of warning. Until I dreaded the ghastly waiting outside clinics, palabok was the comfort food that could cajole me into sprinkling forbidden drops of “patis (fish sauce),” Malabon’s famous extract that looks deceptively golden but, due to its saltiness, must have petrified countless kidneys.

Even at its most celebratory, pancit reminds us of mortality. Birthday noodles should be taken only once a year. Pancit is best solo, never paired with rice or bread ala “pancit spread”.

Three years ago, I sat in a Lipa panciteria fronting a military camp, slurping down batchoy with other regulars: soldiers, salesmen, and tricycle drivers.

The soup came in a vat the size of a small laundry basin; the thick sauce had to be finished before it cooled and congealed like lahar. Dexterity demanded swallowing the pancit while sniffing back rivulets of mucus released by fiery broken peppers.

When we recently stopped for a batchoy dinner at a roadside stall in Mandaue, I left a clean bowl. I don’t recall what I made disappear. Mercifully, pancit, food for the mortal, is also for the forgetful.

* First published in the October 25, 2015 issue of the “Matamata,” Sun.Star Cebu’s Sunday editorial-page column

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