How Birthday Pancit Helped Me Learn to Love My Filipino Heritage

I wanted cake, not noodles. My parents wanted me to understand where I came from.

Shrimp Pancit with Chicharrones
Photo: Photo by Antonis Achilleos / Food Styling by Margaret Monroe Dickey / Prop Styling by Thom Driver

Just as it is the case for many first-generation children in America, growing up here wasn't easy for me. It felt like nothing about my life was the same as it was for my peers in school. As a first-generation Filipino-American — especially a girl — I lived under strict rules from my parents. I was barely allowed out of the house, and missed birthday parties, sleepovers, field trips, and other typically American childhood activities like learning how to ride a bike or a scooter. I was taught to bite my tongue, even when I was old enough to have something to say and especially if it was to someone older than me. Doing that was disrespectful: "walang galang." These rules made me feel like I could not live my life to its full potential. But despite all of 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 that fact was our birthday pancit tradition.

When most children look forward to their birthdays, the cake is a big part of it; that moist delicacy covered in sweet frosting and topped with candles is the highlight of a typical American birthday party. But not in my family. Instead, we had pancit: a savory noodle dish symbolizing long life in Filipino culture. In our tradition, we had to eat it on our birthday every year because, as my Nanay would say, "You'll live to be over 100 years old if you do." And so, we ate ancit instead of cake. At every birthday, pancit was and still is the centerpiece of our dinner table.

Pancit has many different styles — canton, palabok, sotanghon — but my family always made the bihon style. The main differences between these variations are the noodles. Pancit canton uses noodles similar to spaghetti, but more flexible and made of wheat flour and eggs. Palabok uses thick or thin rice noodles smothered in a rich, orange-colored shrimp and pork sauce. Sotanghon is a dish with glass noodles formed 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 based on soy and oyster sauce.

Although our pancit was delicious, I never looked forward to eating it when my birthday came around. I craved that candle-topped cake, not noodles. I was so envious of the other kids who had cake. It was yet another thing that made me feel different from anyone else.

As I got older, I eventually stopped caring so much about birthday cake, and grew 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 me grew bigger as the years went by. I wanted to be more independent and to go out and explore what the world had to offer. That's hard to do living with strict Filipino parents who wanted me to stay at home. I was barely allowed out to see my friends or do things on my own. I felt I didn't really have control over my life. Which is why, when college application time came around, I picked a culinary school a good two and half hour drive away. I could still go home on the weekends — but there was also enough distance to give me the independence I wanted.

I made the move in September that year, about three weeks before my 18th birthday. But even though I had craved independence for so long, I was incredibly homesick. The night of my birthday, my new friends surprised me with a birthday cake. I remember looking at it briefly, and feeling a sudden longing for my mother's pancit. In that moment, I wanted to comfort myself with the slippery feel of the noodles soaked with flavors of the sauce, the crisp fresh vegetables and the tender meat. I missed all of it 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 mom's pancit.

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

Once September rolled around again, I knew I was going to have yet another birthday far from home and without my mother's pancit. Even though our relationship was still a little rocky, I decided it was time to learn to make it myself. I flew home a week before my birthday and asked her to cook it for me. I listened as she explained all of the ingredients, and took notes as she cooked. It was the first time I'd seen my mom since our falling out, and the first genuine conversation since I had moved out.

As my mom cooked, she talked to me about why pancit was so important to our family. My parents were both very poor while growing up in the Philippines, and sometimes worried about when they would get their next meal. Pancit was a cheap option, and became special to them. When I heard her explain this, I regretted not appreciating my birthday pancit more when I was younger. It makes me feel lucky to even be able to have it.

No matter what my family is going through, we will always have that connection with pancit, and most importantly, our food. I still call my mom whenever I want to cook a traditional Filipino dish like sinigang, bistek, or adobo. And now that I know how to perfect my mother's pancit, I can make it for the kids I hope to have one day — passing on that very different, but special birthday tradition.

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