Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Alchemy of Pancit Palabok

I made my first attempt at creating pancit palabok yesterday. Yes, “create”, not merely “cook”, is the correct way to describe how to prepare this alchemy of tubular rice noodles under a blanket of ground pork in a velvety sauce of achuete water and corn starch, topped with fried tofu, crushed chicharon, scallions, tinapa flakes, sliced boiled eggs, and poached shrimp. Served on the side are halved kalamansi limes to temper the richness with refreshing acidity and patis to play up the salt factor.

Pancit palabok can either be sublime when done right or be close to inedible due to incorrect preparation or if left to congeal on the plate by an inattentive diner. The right type of noodle is critical, as well as the addition of flaked tinapa which I found is the true heart of this dish. Reconstituted dried shrimp will do in a pinch, but seek out tinapa flakes or smoked trout it you can. And for a truly elevated experience, next time I will not only make my own sauce from scratch instead of using the packaged kind, but will also swap out saffron for the achuete seeds. Perhaps also play with the different thickening agents. Cornstarch is suitable, but what about ground rice flour made from toasting then hand grinding uncooked rice? Or maybe starting the sauce with a blonde roux instead? The same techniques that my Mom uses to make her kare kare sauce can be employed, but with much less butter and sans peanuts.

Truth be told this was an infuriating dish to make. I literally screamed at one point during the cooking process due to the ruined batch of noodles. Then there was the disappointment of finding out how slimy the reconstitutued salted croaker fish had become, a completely unsuitable substitute for the tinapa flakes. I had all four gas burners on at the same time, and a kitchen sink full of utensils, bowls and pots as the aftermath. This dish is no joke. It suffers no fools and will not wait. Five minutes after it is served it turns sullen, the otherwise wonderful sauce would have congealed, the rice noodles stick together, and the first bite will be savory paste and not that amazing silken experience of noodle, sauce and garnish married as one.

This is a dish that is best served to one who anticipates it, stomach growling, as my husband did yesterday afternoon when we spent our last day of the long weekend relaxing at home instead of venturing out to BBQs and Labor Day sales. In our sunny kitchen while he booked our flight to Paris for our upcoming one year wedding anniversary, I spent two hours dreamily re-reading the recipe from “Memories of Philippine Kitchen”, with visions of myself at Cendrillon in NYC getting coached by the authors of the cookbook. Reality set in as soon as I put my third pot on the stove: this was not a simple matter of whipping up a tried and true dish. I was in unknown territory: preparing, cooking, soaking dried croacker fish only to discard it, soaking dried shrimp as a Plan B, cursing at the ruined noodles, making a new batch, frying up squares of tofu and garlic, chopping scallions, grinding chicharon with mortar and pestle, and finally, hours later, assembling then serving the pancit palabok as our late lunch/merienda (Lurienda? Is this the next wave of in between meals, where instead of meeting for brunch one can issue a more provocative invitation for Lurienda?)

Was it worth the effort? An entire afternoon for what is essentially considered snack food, slurped down during long bus trips from Baguio to Manila, in a motel/restaurant in Pampanga famous for its pancit palabok, or in Carson at a Filipino buffet place with terrible food save for that one specialty? This highly caloric ode to salt, carb and fat, with more ingredients than can be counted with both hands? To a true enthusiast it is worth it. Was I happy with the final result yesterday? Not really. My husband who loves everything I make loved it, but I ate the pancit palabok with little joy, already dreaming up ways to improve the dish. But later on as I swiped an errant tofu along the bottom of the pot, I though, ok, not bad for a first try. No recipe to share this time because it still eludes me, the flavors and textures have not truly come together on that first attempt. Like an expensive purse just slightly out of my price range I consider pancit palabok aspirational cuisine, one that I will research, recreate and tweak until it becomes my own.

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