From ‘mi’ to ‘pancit’
I listened to an interview on Internet radio with food writer Jen Lin-Liu about her new book, “On the Noodle Road,” where she describes a six-month journey through China, into central Asia, Turkey, Iran and finally Italy, to see if she could find the origin of noodles, or pasta. For decades now, books have been written, even conferences organized, on the question of whether it was Chinese noodles that led to Italian pasta, or the other way around.
I haven’t been able to get Lin-Liu’s book but in the radio interview, she still seemed inconclusive. She did say that the story of Marco Polo bringing noodles to Italy was a myth created by the macaroni industry. In a book excerpt found on the site of National Public Radio, she also raises some doubts about the authenticity of Chinese claims to the oldest noodle, found in an archaeological site in Qinghai and supposedly dating back 4,000 years. She seems inclined to accept a theory that it was Genghis Khan, or the Mongols, who spread pasta-like products across his empire.
What Lin-Liu did establish is that very similar products are found from Beijing to Rome: all kinds of noodles, as well as dumplings, the Chinese “wonton,” the “manta” of Central Asia, the “manti” of Turkey (prepare yourself: beef and onions as the ingredients, served with a yogurt sauce drizzled with mint and paprika) to the “tortellini” of Italy.
Lin-Liu and other food scholars (no degree programs yet, unfortunately, for this specialty) point out that dumplings came about because they were a portable way of moving food around, and indeed when you think about it, yes, you’re really talking about protein food (meat, vegetables, even cheeses) being wrapped in a flour-based pouch so it won’t spill all over the place, and then steamed, stir-fried or cooked in whatever kind of broth that is available, sometimes even just plain water.
And the noodles? Lin-Liu suggests that the noodles might have “descended” from bread, torn into strips. I did a bit more research on the Internet and indeed, noodles, or at least the dried varieties, can last for extended periods and can be stored and transported. The Arabs did have their version of noodles, which they took on long caravans.
Listening to all that talk about noodles and pasta got me thinking about the Philippines. Our taste of noodles almost certainly came from the Chinese, given the names we use. “Mami” means meat noodles in Minnan Chinese, the language used by most local ethnic Chinese. As a Filipino term, “mami” now simply means noodles, so we have chicken mami, pork mami, even seafood mami.
The term “pancit” is more intriguing, apparently derived from “piensit,” the Minnan Hokkien term for “ready food.” Documents from the Spanish period refer to the “pancitero,” or Chinese street vendors, selling Chinese food. In a way they were the original fast-food vendors. Piensit eventually took a strange turn, becoming pancit, referring to noodle dishes alone. And today we have all kinds of pancit preparations, from pancit canton (many Chinese restaurants actually served Cantonese food even if most local ethnic Chinese are from the adjoining southern Chinese province of Fujian or Hokkien) to pancit malabon.
The noodles of northern China, like the Italian pasta, are mostly wheat-based. Our “mi” and pancit products use more of rice flour. “Bihon,” a type of noodle, in fact means “rice flour.” “Sotanghun” is another noodle, “sotang” being a corruption of “sua tang” or the province of Shantung.
What about instant noodles, which have become such a staple for Filipino households, sometimes even used as the only dish by the poor and not-so-poor (like students, bachelors, and other people who can’t cook)?
Now that took another route. The original instant noodles were developed in Japan by Momofuku Ando, whose company, Nissin, brought out the first commercial instant-noodle product in 1958. These are instant “ramen,” the Japanese name derived from the Chinese “la mien” or pulled noodles. The technology for instant ramen spread throughout Asia while the product itself found markets all over the world.
I first discovered instant ramen while living in the United States as a graduate student, who couldn’t cook. Today I still occasionally use instant noodles but throw away the seasoning, which is mostly monosodium glutamate or “vetsin,” and add my own ingredients for better nutrition.
As much as possible, though, I avoid the product as well as many restaurants’ noodle products, which are still loaded with vetsin. There are a few places now offering better noodles, including genuine hand-pulled ones complete with the cooks doing the hand-pulling behind a glass window to prove they’re authentic. The best noodles are described as having a certain “pull” similar to al dente for Italian pasta, and in Minnan Chinese (actually Taiwanese Chinese) it is called “q,” as in the letter Q, with no Chinese character for it!
An unexpected development in recent years has been the spreading popularity of Vietnamese “pho,” which are truly complete meals—carbohydrates from pho and protein from meat or seafood, or, for vegetarians, tofu and mushrooms. The pho’s distinctive flavor and aroma come from cardamom. The dish is also supposed to be taken with “tauge” (mung bean sprouts) and an Asian basil variety, but I notice that quite often Filipinos disregard these vegetables.
What about Italian pasta? Macaroni and spaghetti are still the most well known. In my childhood they were associated with birthday parties, but today they have become common food, available at fast-food joints. Children love Filipino spaghetti because it’s so sweet and has hot dogs, a concoction which Italians find almost blasphemous.
Our appreciation of Italian pasta is changing, though, with supermarkets and restaurants offering a wider variety of products. Rustan’s even has freshly prepared pasta, together with all kinds of ingredients to go with them. They’re still considered expensive, so are unlikely yet to become common dishes.
Other Filipinos are discovering the joys of homemade pasta and noodles, investing anywhere from P7,000 to P50,000 for pasta makers. You knead your own dough and pass it through the pasta maker, which has different attachments for all kinds of pasta, including Asian noodles. There are also contraptions for making dumplings, expensive ones.
Returning to Lin-Liu, author of “On the Noodle Road,” she did talk about how women in several cultures, across central Asia and into Italy, are rated for their marriage eligibility by their expertise in preparing dumpling products. In Turkey, the most highly rated are the ones who can make four tiny manti fit into one spoon!
I am sure we will see more Filipino versions of noodles and dumplings emerging in the future, shaped by our diaspora, as well as by local tastes and ingredients. Don’t forget that dumplings are just small, even tiny, wraps, the ingredients left to your imagination, to be concocted and relished with good company.
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