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A lesson in (and from) Mom’s pancit bihon

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In the excitement and hubbub of reuniting with my best friends from home after a year apart, I brazenly offered to cook them pancit bihon — a traditional Filipino noodle dish consisting of vermicelli noodles, pork and vegetables — for an upcoming dinner.

It was only after we all agreed upon the menu that a small hindrance to my future dinner plans dawned on me: I had absolutely no idea on how to cook pancit bihon. I mean, yes, I knew that only one bite brought back memories of home and warmth and my father’s deep, exaggerated belly laugh ringing with contentment and approval. But what was actually in the dish? How do I cook the noodles? What is the appropriate noodles-to-pork ratio? In what order do I add the vegetables to the pan? Carrots, cabbage, bell peppers and then sayote? Or sayote, carrots, cabbage and then bell peppers?  

Overwhelmed about the debacle I had consciously volunteered myself into, I turned to the person who always seems to have the right answer to my life’s most egregious problems: my mother. 

Now, as much as I love my mother, the woman does not believe in recipes. Growing up, I remember watching her cook Wednesday night dinner from behind my makeshift study corner at the dining table, amazed at how easy she made everything look. She would hum Filipino love songs from the nineties to herself while she chopped slabs of beef shoulder and listen attentively to my laments about a rough day as she sprinkled spices into her large, iron pot. Sometimes, when the situation seemed too dire for mere words, she would urge me to sing and slow-dance with her to Johnny Cash’s “You Are My Sunshine” as she enveloped me into a comforting embrace, all while leaving the stove heat on full-blast. (To this day, she has never burned a single dish.) 

Her culinary repertoire consisted of my favorite Filipino dishes, such as adobo, the classic pork dish seeped with a soy sauce and vinegar (toyo at suka) soup, and kaldereta, a hearty beef stew made with tomato sauce and chunks of potatoes and carrots. Holiday season signaled her departure into her Christmas staples of embutido, chicken macaroni salad, and a Pinoy take on spaghetti, opting out of the traditional tomato meat sauce in favor of a sweeter banana sauce. Constants throughout the year were her five variations of pancit, all stemming from different regions of our tiny, seven-thousand-island country: sotanghon guisado, sotanghon sabaw, bami, canton and bihon. Everything was always served with a generous heap of steaming white rice and love. 

My mother’s effortless work in the kitchen and her delicious results eventually worked to my disadvantage, as years of watching her cook from afar inflated my false confidence that I, too, could churn out homemade Pinoy dishes at the drop of a hat. 

She started her lesson with a warning. 

“I don’t use recipes, you know. I just kind of go for it, and see what happens.” 

My mother proved quite the hands-on instructor, immediately informing me on the correct way to cut my slab of pork into tiny, bite-size strips, guiding my hand as I chopped the sayote and trying to explain to me, to no avail, exactly what she meant when she said, “Chop sideways!” 

I took in every bit of food intel she spewed out, furiously typing it all into a Notes file on my phone. Enumerated and in stunning detail, I felt like I was writing these tips down not only for myself and the dinner I had promised my friends, but for my future daughter, and my daughter’s daughter and my daughter’s daughter’s daughter. “For posterity,” I kept repeating in my head. 

Problems arose when we started adding spices. I may not know much about cooking, but even I know that a pinch of extra pepper can lead any potential culinary masterpiece astray. I relayed this concern to her. 

She listened, looked at me for a moment, and laughed. 

“So what if the broth gets too peppery? Then you can just add a little bit more water, give it time to dilute, and you can start all over. Easy.” 

That’s when I finally understood. The key to my mother’s grace in the kitchen, the secret ingredient behind her perfect food, is the sheer imperfection of it all and her unshakable belief that she can fix it. 

The pork cut too thick? Just cut them up into tinier strips. The carrots chopped a tad too thin? That’s okay, just be careful not to let them cook in the pot too long, otherwise they may soften and lose their natural crunch. 

This, apart from how to make pancit bihon, is what I learned from Mom on that August morning. There is no bad day that can’t be slept off, no heartbreak that time and space (and an impulsive but necessary-for-your-emotional-health blocking on all social media platforms) cannot heal. Nothing in this world is too broken or messed up that it cannot be repaired. 

Like so many other Stanford students have discovered, and even written about here at the Grind, I’ve found that it is dangerously easy to lose faith – in people, in love, in the universe, in myself. When things don’t pan out the way I hoped they would, I lose myself in figuring out what went wrong. I get stuck in the past, furiously swimming through turbulent waters tainted with too much pepper and self-doubt, just trying not to drown. 

In this high-pressure environment, time goes by quickly. P-sets are due, essays must be written, midterms passed. Consider this piece a call for a timeout. Forgive yourself, accept your mistakes and remedy as much of it as you can. And if you can’t, that’s okay too. Just add a little water, give yourself some time. You can start all over. 

Easy. 

For more life advice and cooking tips, contact Justine Sombilon at jsombilo ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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