How Birthday Pancit Helped Me Love My Filipino Heritage | Wender Mind Kids

How Birthday Pancit Helped Me Love My Filipino Heritage

Shrimp pancit with chicharrones

Photo by Antonis Achilleos / Food Styling by Margaret Monroe Dickey / Prop Styling by Thom Driver

Like many first-generation children in America, growing up here wasn’t easy for me. It felt like nothing in my life was like my classmates at school. As a first-generation Filipino-American—especially as a girl—I lived under strict rules from my parents. I was rarely allowed out of the house and missed birthday parties, sleepovers, field trips, and other American childhood activities like learning to ride a bike or scooter. I was taught to bite my tongue even when I was old enough to have a say, and especially when it was for someone older than me. That was disrespectful: “walang galang.” These rules made me feel like I couldn’t live my life to the fullest. But despite all my FOMO, I knew my family still loved and cared for me. They put a roof over my head, food on the table, clothes on my body, and supported my goals and dreams. One thing that helped me appreciate this fact was our birthday pancit tradition.

When most children look forward to their birthday, cake plays a big part; Covered in sweet frosting and topped with candles, this moist delicacy is the pinnacle of a quintessentially American birthday celebration. But not in my family. Instead, we had pancit: a savory noodle dish that symbolizes longevity in Filipino culture. In our tradition, we had to eat it every year on our birthday because, as my nanay would say, “You’ll live to be over 100 if you do that.” And so we ate ancit instead of cake. Pancit was and is the heart of our table on every birthday.

Pancit has many different styles – Canton, Palabok, Sotanghon – but my family has always made the Bihon style. The main difference between these variations is the noodles. Pancit Canton uses pasta similar to spaghetti but more flexible, made with wheat flour and eggs. Palabok uses thick or thin rice noodles smothered in a rich, orange-tinged shrimp and pork sauce. Sotanghon is a dish made with glass noodles made from yam, mung beans or cassava. Bihon uses rice noodles stir-fried with vegetables and either shrimp, chicken, or pork, then folded in a savory sauce on top of soy and oyster sauce.

Although our pancit was delicious I was never looking forward to eating it when my birthday came around. I was craving this candle cake, not pasta. I was so jealous of the other kids who had cakes. There was one more thing that made me feel different from everyone else.

Eventually, as I got older, I became less interested in birthday cakes and got used to eating pancit. I accepted that it was a special family tradition and even looked forward to it. But the gap between my family and I grew bigger over the years. I wanted to be more independent and get out and explore what the world has to offer. It’s hard living with strict Filipino parents who wanted me to stay at home. I was hardly allowed to see my friends or do things by myself. I felt like I wasn’t really in control of my life. So, as college application time approached, I sought out a cooking school about a two-and-a-half hour drive away. I was still able to go home at the weekend – but there was also enough distance to give me the independence I wanted.

I moved in September of that year, about three weeks before my 18th birthday. But even though I’d longed for independence for so long, I was incredibly homesick. On my birthday, my new friends surprised me with a birthday cake. I remember looking at it briefly and suddenly longing for my mother’s pancit. In that moment, I wanted to comfort myself with the slippery feel of the pasta, soaked with the flavors of the sauce, the crisp fresh veggies, and the tender meat. I missed everything and wanted to go home. But I didn’t have a car on campus and the nearest Filipino restaurant was miles away. And I couldn’t bring myself to make it myself because nothing compares to my mother’s pancit.

After graduating from culinary school, I moved back home to pursue a bachelor’s degree at a nearby college. But after falling out with my parents a few days after graduation, I moved out again, this time taking a scholarship in a city several states away.

As September rolled around again, I knew I would have another birthday away from home and without my mom’s panic. Even though our relationship was still a bit rocky, I decided it was time to learn to do it myself. I flew home a week before my birthday and asked her to cook it for me. I listened as she explained all the ingredients and took notes as she cooked. It was the first time I’d seen my mother since our fight, and the first real conversation since I’d moved out.

As my mom cooked, she spoke to me about why pancit was so important to our family. My parents were both very poor growing up in the Philippines and sometimes worried about when their next meal would be. Pancit was a cheap option and became something special for her. When I heard her explain this, I regretted that I didn’t appreciate my birthday party more when I was younger. It makes me happy to even have it.

No matter what my family is going through, we will always have this connection to Pancit and especially to our food. I still call my mom when I want to cook a traditional Filipino dish like sinigang, bistek, or adobo. And now that I know how to perfect my mom’s pancit, I can make it for the kids I hope to have one day – and pass on this very different but special birthday tradition.