Pancit Bihon: long noodles for long life
Me, L and Ate
One of my sisters celebrated a birthday last week and once again, I was the odd girl out. You see, my three sisters live within a few miles of each other in Redondo Beach, CA which means they can share all the important family events together while I, tucked away in the Midwest, am relegated to participating ex post facto through e-mails and phone calls.
Baby sister, future bloggerAnd so it was last week, when Ate [pronounced AH-teh, meaning 'older sister' in Tagalog] was joined by the other two siblings, their respective spouses and children to help her celebrate another year while I had to settle for reading about it a few days later when our youngest sister wrote an account for her eco-lifestyle blog, neena creates.
Of course, I was terribly disappointed to have missed such a special time for family bonding but what really burned my candle was missing a marvelous restaurant meal, courtesy of Ate and her requisite Birthday Blowout.
You may already be familiar with this term, which is often used to describe any over-the-top celebration, but for many Filipinos, it is nothing less than a social obligation. In an unspoken yet clearly understood custom, a birthday celebrant is expected to treat family and friends to a fantastic feast, preferably at a nice (i.e. expensive) restaurant - hence 'blowout', a cheeky acknowledgment that the final bill could obliterate the sponsor's bank account. It's great for the guests but something of a raw deal for the person who should be pampered, not pauperized, on their special day. So why is it an accepted tradition?
Since much of the information I've found about the Pinoy-style blowout is mostly anecdotal and factually hazy, I can only offer a thesis based on my own observations: that it is an adaptation of long-standing traditions in response to increased urban living and wider dispersal of family members.
Come One, Come All!
Tita (Aunt) Vicki preparing lechon
The cornerstones of virtually all Filipino celebrations are family and food, and in this culture, there is an abundance of both. The super-extended familial system means that every relative within a day's travel is either involved in the planning of a party or must be invited to attend, no matter how distant the blood tie. By sharing in the preparation and by participating in the festivities, family members reiterate deep bonds, particularly across generations and between branches of the family tree.
However, such gatherings are not limited only to blood relations or very close friends; often, professional colleagues and their families are invited as well. The non-kin social network is nearly as important to Filipinos as the one into which they were born:
"While individuals rely on immediate relatives for support and mutual benefit, they do not hesitate to enter into social relationships with non-kin, who may be physically more accessible or able to offer better professional service or economic benefits."(Roces, 58)
It may seem like nothing more than a transparent ploy to curry favor by inviting your boss to your child's first birthday party. But this compadre system - adopted from the Catholic baptismal ritual of compadrazco, or co-parenthood (Roces, 48) - is an integral and fully-accepted means of extending the entire family's support network and adding to its prestige.
It also means that there are even more appetites to satisfy at a party! I can vouch from personal experience that for Filipinos, food is the primary measure of hospitality and there's no such thing as serving too much. No self-respecting host would risk hiya [hee-YAH], or social shame, by setting a sparse table or running out of food. In fact, it is customary to have enough party fare to wrap up and send home with guests (pabaon). This is not some underhanded strategy to get rid of leftovers but rather an honored tradition symbolizing the spirit of sharing the resources of community and family (Roces, 81).
Back to the Blowout
So, how does all of this relate to the birthday blowout? In recent decades, the Philippines has experienced good economic growth and greater participation on the global stage. This has spurred many young Filipinos to leave their communities for job opportunities in larger cities and, increasingly, other countries [according to 2007 census data, there were 1.75 million overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), of whom 55% were 35 years old or younger]. While this does not mean that the close kinship system has broken down, it does make it more difficult for many to participate in the family occasions that also serve to reinforce close bonds.
Modern Manila: can old traditions adapt?
As a result, the non-kin system of friends and colleagues becomes the primary support network and old traditions are modified in response to social changes. Instead of the extended family coming together to organize and celebrate a birthday, the blowout allows the celebrant who is far from home to provide the commensality so intrinsic to maintaining social ties. Restaurants have taken the place of relatives to help prepare the feast and the choice of a higher-priced venue may signal the level of hospitality in the same way copious amounts of food do back in the family home. Finally, it is by no means considered 'unfair' that the birthday celebrator foots the entire bill - after all, one of the essential foundations of family and non-kin relationships is the idea of reciprocity. The generous person who shares their good fortune with others in the present can expect to be a recipient in the future.
Just as a family celebration is a small-scale version of a community-wide fiesta in which all members share resources and revelry, the birthday blowout has emerged as the micro-scale model of the same. By adapting to the realities of modern society, the spirit of an important Filipino cultural tradition is preserved and continues to help solidify critical social bonds.
Roces, Alfredo and Grace. Culture Shock! Philippines: a Guide to Customs and Etiquette (3rd edition, 1992). [Link provided is for the 2002 edition]
Pancit Bihon (pan-SIT BEE-hawn)
Although we missed out on Ate's birthday blowout, Mr. Noodle and I celebrated big sister's special day with another important and delicious tradition adopted from Chinese food symbolism - 'long life' noodles! They are absolutely imperative for a Filipino birthday meal and as long as the noodles are uncut during both preparation and consumption, they can be anything from one of the myriad kinds of Filipino pancit to a noodle dish from another Asian cuisine to a serving of Italian long pasta. I chose to stay Pinoy and made Pancit Bihon, the classic stir-fry of thin rice noodles, vegetables, and meat seasoned with onion, garlic, soy sauce, and citrus.
1 (8 oz) package of bihon (rice vermicelli noodles)
2 Tbsp canola oil
1 medium onion, diced
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
1 Tbsp lemongrass, minced
1 Tbsp ginger, slivered
1 1/2 cups cabbage, shredded thinly*
1/2 cup carrots, julienned or shredded thinly*
1.5 - 2 cups cooked chicken, shredded or sliced
2 links Chinese sausage, sliced**
Patis [Filipino fish sauce, a.k.a nuoc mam (Vietnamese), nam pla (Thai)]
2 - 3 cups chicken broth
*For the dish pictured here, I used pre-shredded broccoli slaw!
**Update 4/20/09: dried Chinese sweet sausages are called 'lop cheong' - thanks for the info, Phyllis at me_hungry!
lemon or lime wedges (if you can find it, try calamansi!)
Scallions, thinly sliced on the diagonal
- Soak rice noodles in enough cool water to cover for about 20 minutes to soften. Do not use hot water or soak for too long - the noodles will be cooked in broth later and may become mushy before they absorb the broth's flavor.
- Rehydrate the Chinese sausages by gently simmering in a small pan of water for 10-15 minutes, turning occasionally. When done, cut into thin slices and set aside.
In a wok:
1. Heat canola oil and add onion, garlic, lemongrass and ginger; stir fry until onions are soft and translucent, being careful not to brown them;
2. Add cabbage and carrots and continue to stir fry until vegetables begin to soften;
3. Add soy sauce by tablespoons and patis by teaspoons, to taste;
4. Transfer vegetables to a bowl or platter, and set aside;
5. Drain softened noodles and immediately transfer to the wok; add one cup of chicken broth and bring to a gentle simmer, allowing the noodles to absorb the broth.
6. Stir occasionally to ensure that the noodles do not stick to the bottom. Do not cover or stir too much as this may result in mushiness!
7. Continue to add chicken broth by the cup, allowing noodles to full absorb the liquid between each addition***, until desired consistency is reached. The noodles should be cooked through but still firm to the bite;
8. Reduce heat to low and add cooked vegetables, shredded chicken and sliced sausages to the noodles and gently toss to mix. Add soy sauce and patis if needed;
9. Turn off heat and transfer noodles to a large platter; garnish with lemon wedges and scallions. Serve immediately.
***Update 4/20/09: at the end of cooking, there should be NO broth or liquid left, which is why it should be added a cup at a time and be completely absorbed. This way, leftover noodles can be enjoyed later without the noodles becoming mushy. Thanks, Gastroanthropologist, for the query!
Happy Birthday, Ate!