For centuries, China’s food influence has been global. In fact, the Chinese were the ones who introduced noodles, or pasta, to the Italians. Noodles were also introduced to the Philippines by the Chinese. Learn about the history of pancit and how it evolved over the centuries into the country’s various noodle dishes that we know and love today.
Chinese Traders Introduced Noodles to the World
Chinese traders brought noodle soup to the Philippines, as they did to other countries such as Japan, Thailand, Italy, and more.
The origins of pancit can be traced back to the 16th century, when Chinese traders and immigrants established the world’s oldest Chinatown in Manila, Philippines.
The word “pancit” translates to “noodles,” which can be rice noodles, egg noodles, or mung bean noodles – in other words, any and all localized noodles that are typically sautéed with meat, seafood, and vegetables.
Pancit is derived from the Hokkien phrase “pian I sit,” which means “something quickly cooked.” Essentially, the term referred to fast food. In this case, it referred to noodles cooked with meat and vegetables as a complete meal on one plate in the Philippines.
Panciterias in Philippine History
The first plates of pancit came from factory workers’ food stalls. It later expanded beyond the factories, first as street food stalls and then as brick-and-mortar specialty restaurants known as panciterias.
The name “panciteria” refers to the Philippines’ history, with “pancit” referring to Chinese influence and “-era” referring to Spanish colonial history.
The indigenous noodle dish was effectively the nation’s first “takeout meal” under the Spanish occupation, with panciteros (Chinese food hawkers who peddled pancit) catering to the cigar factories’ working women who had little time for housework or cooking. The desire for the fast, ready-to-eat meal eventually led to merchants constructing permanent roadside cafes to accommodate both working and traveling clients, culminating in our country’s first covered restaurants.
Pancit’s Popularity Globally
Pancit is now a staple at many key milestones like weddings, baptisms, graduations, and, most notably, birthdays, where their essentially Chinese connotation as edible harbingers of long life (provided the noodles are not sliced before eating) is widely emphasized.
Generations of Filipinos have relished it in many forms, with sotanghon, bihon, canton, or miki being the most often used and consumed noodle versions. Pancit is also known by a variety of names, each expressing either the color of the dish (pancit puti or white pancit), how it is eaten (pancit habhab), where it is sold (pancit istasyon), the purported inventor (pancit Henoy), or its place of origin (pancit Malabon).
Pancit is now completely Filipino, having been localized and regionalized throughout the country.