I used to make my friends scurry past our kitchen table if my mom was there eating, so they wouldn’t notice that she wasn’t using silverware. I worried that they already thought her accent was weird; they’d think it was weirder still that she always ate with her hands.
Now that I’m a little older—and I’d like to think, a little wiser—I’m embarrassed that I was embarrassed. My earliest memories of eating are recollections of my mom spooning steamed rice into her bare hands and feeding it me. And now, a trip home isn’t complete without inviting my closest friends over for dinner at my mom’s. We all eat pancit (lemony rice noodles, also sometimes spelled pansit) together, using our hands to ladle rice into our mouths. We all dip lumpia into sweet chile sauce. My friends now know the proper technique for shaping your palm into a little boat, scooping up a small portion of food, and using your thumb to scoot it into your mouth.
But until recently, I’d never prepared Filipino food outside of my mother’s home. It just felt more natural there—Mom keeps her kitchen stocked with essential Filipino ingredients like spicy vinegar, fish sauce, bihon noodles, and big bags of white rice.
When I bought a copy of I Am A Filipino by Nicole Ponseca and Miguel Trinidad, though, I resolved to bring Filipino food into my own kitchen. I sat on my couch flipping through the colorful pages, showing my boyfriend the photos of dishes I ate as a kid. He’d eaten chicken adobo and lumpia at my mom’s house, but hadn’t tasted (or even seen) much Filipino food beyond those popular items.
Bring the bold flavors of the Philippines to your dinner table.
And there, on page 166, I spotted my favorite dish. Unlike most of my mom’s cooking, which tends to focus on pork and chicken, pancit palabok consists of thin rice noodles smothered in a thick, punchy shrimp gravy. The noodles are usually decorated with an assortment of toppings including shrimp, squid, hard-boiled eggs, crushed tsitsaron (crispy-fried pork rinds), and sliced scallions. Each serving comes with lemon wedges so you can squeeze even more brightness into each bite.
My mom always kept a packet of powdered palabok gravy in our pantry; I’d never considered that it could be made from scratch. But Ponseca and Trinidad’s recipe for pancit palabok starts with the gravy. You melt butter in a saucepan and add in a little flour, cooking until blond, then stir in shrimp stock. Yes, you make the shrimp stock yourself, by simmering shrimp shells in water with onions, garlic, crab paste, lemon juice, annatto seeds, and fish sauce. The shrimp brings a fresh, oceanic component to the gravy; the fish sauce and crab paste add a little funk. The combination of flavors makes it pungent, sour, and deeply savory—and that’s the heart of this dish.
From there, it’s simple. You don’t even have to boil the noodles—just soak them in hot water for about five minutes and pull them apart. After you’ve covered the noodles with the tangy, orange-colored gravy, you can consider the dish complete (I’ve eaten them this way more times than I can count), or you can accessorize it with the works by throwing in some quickly-cooked garlicky shrimp, squid, tofu, and fresh green onions.
The full recipe, with the homemade stock, takes a little over an hour—and the vibrant flavors are worth it. But when I don’t have shrimp on hand or an extra hour to spare, I make a semi-DIY stock by dissolving a few cubes of shrimp bouillon into boiling water and letting it simmer with the other ingredients from Ponseca and Trinidad’s recipe. That way, they’re super-casual noodles to eat on the fly; my version of pantry pasta. But the full recipe introduced me to a new dimension of pancit palabok, one that’s elaborate in its toppings, deep and complex in its flavor. You can dress either version up or down as much as you like, and serve it with pride.