I did not grow up eating palabok. Pancit bihon or sotanghon would usually be part of our party staple, not palabok. In fact, I could consider palabok an incredibly unorthodox addition to a buffet spread.
It was in college that my appreciation for palabok really grew. Tucked away at the back of the university where I used to study at, there’s this little resto called Flavourite. It’s practically an institution here in Zamboanga, with branches around town. It’s known for its reasonably priced home cooked dishes, the burgers and of course, the palabok. I think it would be an understatement when I say that their palabok is delicious. In fact, if somebody would ask me what a great palabok is supposed to taste like, I would describe it along the lines of Flavourite’s version.
“Miki, pork”, is my usual order. Palabok noodles can either use miki, (round or flat egg noodles), or bihon (thin strands of rice noodles). I enjoy eating it with miki. And since I have no aversion to pork, I don’t see any reason it shouldn’t be pork.
The thick, gravy-like sauce is curiously orange. Before I read about the process of making it, I’ve always wondered what it’s made of. Of course, all of that curiosity vanishes with the first slurp. The taste is peculiar as well. It’s slightly salty, more than anything else. But it still lays the perfect stage to showcase the hotchpotch of toppings.
I understand that toppings are probably as diverse as the regions of the Philippines, from all-meat, to seafood, but like I said, Flavourite is my benchmark (So if you want to point me to a plate of palabok that rocked your world, drop me a line!) The palabok is topped with little tofu cubes, chicharon (pork crackling), mashed adobo and if I’m not mistaken, pork floss.
Flavourite is so old-school they don’t have a website, not even a facebook page. It makes sense; through the years it has sustained itself well without any gimmicks. So to understand my enthusiasm, if and when you’re in our little city of Zamboanga, please, check it out.
In the meantime, here’s my take on their palabok – with a few topping modifications. The real work is in making the sauce; the rest of the toppings can just be put together at the last-minute. But I’d like to think it was so good that after a few hours the big pot of sauce was polished clean, and the noodles long gone.
Pancit Palabok (serves 6 – 8)
Some miki noodles have been pre-salted already, so exercise caution when seasoning the sauce, tasting as you go along.
2 500-gram packs miki (egg noodles; the ones that I used were bundled but already soft and ready to use, with a shelf-life of only 3 days)
- At least 8 – 10 medium-sized prawns, head and shell intact, but with barbs (the rostrum) and whiskers snipped
- 3 – 4 cups water to cook the prawns
- 1 30-gram pack annatto/atsuete seeds
- ¼ cup vegetable oil
- 2 tablespoons patis/fish sauce, or more to taste
- Salt and pepper
- 2 pork broth cubes, or more to taste
- Cornstarch slurry: 6 – 8 tablespoons cornstarch dissolved in 1 cup warm water
- ¼ kilo pork belly, sliced into small cubes
- Pork chicharon, crumbled
- Spring onions, cleaned and sliced thinly
- Napa cabbage/Chinese pechay, cleaned and sliced into strips
- 5 – 8 hard-boiled eggs, sliced in half
- Over medium heat, boil prawns in a pot with the water. When thoroughly orange all over, turn off the heat.
- Using a slotted spoon, remove the prawns and place in a bowl. Allow to cool. Reserve the water for use later.
- Meanwhile, in a pan, add the pork with enough water to cover the bottom of the pan. Cook over medium heat. Season with salt and pepper. Allow the water to evaporate and the pork’s fat to render. Sauté the pork in its own fat until lightly toasted.
- Peel the prawns and remove the heads. Place all the prawn heads in a mortar and using the pestle (the heavy bat shaped object), pound the prawn heads until juices have been released and the mixture looks “pulpy”.
- Place everything in the pot of water that was used to boil the prawns and mix everything together.
- In a small pot, make the atsuete oil by heating the vegetable oil over medium heat and adding the atsuete seeds. Toast until fragrant and the oil takes on a shade of dark orange.
- Add the oil to the shrimp water, together with the seeds. Mix everything together and let the color bleed into the soup, leave for 3 – 5 minutes. You will want a slightly dark yellow-orange colored liquid.
- Run the mixture through a sieve and into a slightly larger pot. Heat the pot over medium heat. Add around 1 – 2 more cups water. Season with salt and pepper. Add the broth cubes and the fish sauce, starting with 2 cubes and 2 tablespoons, respectively. Add more if desired.
- When it starts to simmer, add the cornstarch slurry. Allow to boil, stirring frequently. Adjust taste and consistency to your liking. I personally want a liquid that’s thick and gravy-like, which may need more of the slurry, or not – it’s your call.
- Place the miki noodles in a bowl of hot water to wash and soften it. Drain.
- Put everything together: In a plate, place a generous mound of noodles. Ladle an equally generous amount of sauce. Add the toppings (toasted pork belly, sliced spring onions and Napa cabbage, shrimps, hard-boiled egg) and sprinkle with the crumbled chicharon. Serve with calamansi on the side. Enjoy!