Pancit Palabok Made Easy
This is one of the Philippines’ most popular noodle dishes but it’s usually saved for special occasions (or enjoyed as takeout) because of its reputation for being hard to make. My version is authentic, flavorful, skips the sodium-loaded flavor packets and bouillon cubes and best of all, is ready in one hour.
If you’re passing through this blog and are not Filipino I expect you might just skip past this recipe altogether, maybe not finding this platter of brightly-colored noodles particularly enticing. More likely, you’re a pinoy reader who stumbled upon this recipe because you’ve finally decided to give pancit palabok a try in your kitchen and landed on this page after a Google or Pinterest search (this is my hope anyway).
Right now you’re looking at these pictures and the ingredient list wondering if this is the recipe you’ll give a chance…and I hope it is. I will confess that I have some regret using cool tones as a backdrop for these pictures because they don’t convey the warmth, the delight and the sense of accomplishment I felt upon having my first taste of the sauce and the realization that I had just made palabok in my kitchen…without using a flavor packet or bouillon cubes.
Like me, you’ve always thought that pancit palabok is best enjoyed through the toil of others or from your favorite Filipino restaurant. I was in your boat a few weeks ago but a serious craving coupled with an unwillingness to drive 30 miles to the closest Filipino restaurant emboldened me to tackle palabok myself. Not wanting it to be the major production I always imagined it would be, I broke down the dish into its components–the protein base, the sauce (or gravy), the noodles, the toppings–and came up with an authentic, flavorful recipe that took one hour from start to finish. The one-hour timeline was not my goal but I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly the dish came together. I’ll explain why I used the ingredients listed below but first, in case my kind non-Filipino readers are still reading this post, I’d like to define what palabok is.
What is Pancit Palabok (or Pancit Luglug)
Pancit Palabok (pahn-sit pah-lah-bok) is a noodle dish flavored with shrimp gravy and dressed up with assorted toppings. Made from scratch, palabok sauce would be prepared with stock from the head and shells of the shrimp used in the dish and if you’re from Pampanga, supplemented with pork stock since the proteins in palabok include pork in addition to the more popular shrimp. In Pampanga, this dish is called pancit luglug–the term luglug (loog-loog) meaning dunked or dipped since the rice (or corn starch) noodles are briefly dumped in boiling water for quick cooking. In Malabon, an enclave of Metro Manila, this dish is aptly called Pancit Malabon and is set apart from its cousins by its use of thicker noodles that are tossed in the sauce rather than sitting on the platter as a nest for the sauce and toppings and more liberal use of seafood (squid and oysters in addition to shrimp). Tofu is also often included as an additional protein and all versions rely on annatto seed for the vibrant color and the various garnishes to round out the flavors. The toppings are important and no palabok would be complete without them.
Pancit Palabok Components
MEAT BASE AND SAUCE: These are the most important components of pancit palabok. Traditionally, or at least the way I’ve seen my family prepare the dish, the sauce and meat (pork, shrimp and tofu) are prepared separately and layered on top of the noodles. In this recipe, I combine the two in one pot, though I cook the shrimp and tofu ahead of time and add them to the sauce later. It simplifies preparation without compromising the final dish.
How to Simplify Palabok Sauce? Maybe the part that discourages home cooks the most about palabok is the seafood stock. It’s prepared by simmering the head and shells of the shrimp in water. Most of us rarely buy shrimp with the heads on and personally, I agree that this step can be a lot of work. The solution for most is to use flavor packets (like Mama Sita’s) or shrimp bouillon cubes to capture the palabok flavor.
And before I get a ton of hate mail, there’s nothing wrong with this approach at all. I will never say no to a plate of palabok and I’m sure most versions I’ve eaten–and loved–over the years (apart from those prepared by my family) have used the packaged mix as a base. What I’ve set out to avoid in my recipe is all the sodium that comes from utilizing these shortcuts. Have you looked at the backs of these packages lately? One package of Mama Sita’s Palabok Mix has 4500 mg of sodium and one shrimp bouillon cube 2260 mg.
My solution? Use clam juice and seafood stock. Yes, I still used store-bought products but the combined sodium content was much lower and I still got the seafood flavor the dish requires. I like to add clam juice to my paella dishes and sometimes to my linguine with clams so this was a natural solution for getting good seafood flavor without the extra work.
Two bottles of Bar Harbor Clam Juice and one box of Imagine Seafood Stock were the much-lower-sodium combination I was after. They may seem like unconventional ingredients for palabok but they really work. (Note: I tried the canned Bar Harbor Seafood Stock and didn’t like it as much as Imagine for this recipe because it had more of a fin fish rather than a shellfish flavor which is more suitable for palabok. Also, keep it to two jars of clam juice to keep the sodium down but to get enough seafood flavor; the Imagine Seafood Stock is low sodium and has good, mellow flavor so I use more of this. )
As I mentioned earlier, in Pampanga where Pancit Luglug originates, since pork is a traditional ingredient (it’s boiled, cubed, fried in annatto oil and ladled over the gravy), pork stock is sometimes used with the seafood stock. I use ground pork in this recipe for convenience as others do but I made carnitas in my Instant Pot recently (recipe here) and ended up with a few cups of pork stock. When I prepared another batch of palabok gravy a day later I used some of this flavorful byproduct from the carnitas and it turned out just as tasty, if not better, than the first time. For additional umami, I used a recent discovery at Trader Joe’s: mushroom powder. Because it contains salt, too, I used it sparingly but with great results. This is an optional addition but it works.
GARNISHES/TOPPINGS: Palabok wouldn’t be right without the accompaniments. It’s all about balancing textures and flavors and the best way to keep the dish from tasting one dimensional is with the addition of scallions, lemons (traditionally, calamansi), chicharon (pork rinds), tinapa (smoked fish), eggs, ground pepper, fried garlic, fish sauce and more seafood.
I can do without the hard-boiled eggs and fried garlic but the rest are absolute musts for me. The smoky, salty quality of flaked tinapa is key for adding depth to the mellower seafood base. But unless you’ve got access to an Asian market that sells Filipino products tinapa can be hard to come by. I recommend Ducktrap Smoked Trout to get the same flavor and it’s available at most US markets. It’s a staple in my fridge as a convenient protein source for salads and fried rice.
The crushed pork rinds add texture and another layer of flavor. If you can find Filipino chicharon use it instead of the Mexican variety. The former have more flavor and substance but the latter would be an acceptable substitute, too.
The citrus and ground pepper have to be served with palabok. They add brightness–the more the better.
NOODLES: Classic Pancit Palabok uses bihon (rice) noodles, Pancit Luglug uses Bihon or corn starch noodles and Pancit Malabon uses the thicker malabon noodles. Use what you prefer. At the Asian market go to the dried noodle section and look for the Excellent brand for bihon. I have the most experience with bihon so this is what I recommend.
Conclusion: I expected homemade Pancit Palabok to be a tall order but I was pleasantly surprised instead by how easy it was to make myself. Breaking down the components simplifies the process and a few minutes of multi-tasking on the stove cuts the time down by a lot. If you’ve stayed with me up to this point I hope I’ve convinced you to give this recipe a go. I’ve not seen another palabok recipe using the same substitutes I’ve suggested here and I think you’ll be as pleased as I am. If you do try it, I’d love to hear from you.
Pancit Palabok Made Easy
With some brief multi-tasking on the stove you can have pancit palabok ready in an hour. This recipe is authentic and flavorful without using a flavor packet or a bouillon cube.
For the Sauce/Gravy
- 15 medium shrimp (more for topping, optional); peeled and deveined
- 1 block extra firm tofu, drained and cubed
- 2/3 pound ground pork
- 1 onion, diced
- 5 cloves garlic, crushed
- 2 teaspoons fish sauce (up to 1 tablespoon)
- 1/2 teaspoon mushroom powder (up to 1 teaspoon)(optional)
- Few dashes onion powder (1/4-1/2 teaspoon)
- Few dashes garlic powder (1/4-1/2 teaspoon)
- 2 cups clam juice (I like Bar Harbor in 8 oz bottles)
- 4 cups Seafood stock (I recommend Imagine brand Seafood Stock)
- 4-6 tablespoons corn starch stirred into 1/2 cup liquid (See Note)
- 1 teaspoon annatto powder
- Few tablespoons olive oil or vegetable oil
- 12-16 ounces Filipino Bihon Noodles (Rice Noodles)
- Hard Boiled eggs, sliced
- Crushed pork rinds (I recommend a Filipino brand)
- more cooked shrimp (optional)
- Lemon wedges
- Freshly ground black pepper or ground white pepper
- fish sauce
- Tinapa (smoked fish), flaked (See Note)
- Fried sliced garlic (optional)
Cook the Tofu and Shrimp (see note on multi-tasking to optimize cooking time)
In a small (preferable nonstick) pan heat one tablespoon of oil over medium heat. Add the shrimp and cook until just pink on both sides, one to two minutes. Season with a pinch of salt and pepper while they cook. Remove from the pan and set aside. (If you’re using medium or large shrimp you can cut them in two or three pieces so they’re more bite-sized)
In the same pan, add one or two more tablespoons of oil and add the diced tofu cubes. Sprinkle a pinch of salt and pepper to season (or mushroom powder). Cook over medium to medium-high heat, flipping one or two times to give two or three sides of the cubes just a hint of golden color, about five to six minutes depending on how crowded your pan is. Don’t brown the tofu. Transfer to a plate.
Boil the Eggs
Allow for one egg per one or two servings. Bring water to a boil in a pot large enough to accommodate the noodles. Add the eggs and boil for about eight minutes (or your preferred hard boil time). Don’t drain the water–you’ll use it to boil the noodles. Take the eggs from the pot with a slotted spoon and rinse in cold water. Set aside to cool then peel and slice.
Prepare the Sauce/Gravy
In a pot (I used a four-quart size) add two to three tablespoons olive oil and heat over medium heat. Add the diced onion and sauté for one or two minutes. Add the garlic and cook for a minute or two, watching the heat to make sure the latter doesn’t burn. Add the pork, fish sauce, onion powder, garlic powder and mushroom powder (if using) and cook for about 15 minutes or until the meat is just slightly caramelized and rendering its fat. Add the annatto powder, stir and cook for another minute.
Add the clam juice and seafood stock and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down to medium and add the corn starch slurry. Let simmer for a few minutes until the sauce thickens. Stir in the cooked shrimp and tofu and adjust the seasonings as necessary.
Cook the Noodles
Prepare the noodles while you wait for the sauce to come to a boil or while it simmers. In the same pot of boiling water that you used for the eggs, bring the water back to a boil, adding more water if necessary. Add the rice noodles and cook for three to four minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water and set aside.
Arrange the cooked rice noodles on a platter, ladle the gravy on top (depending on how much or how little sauce you prefer you may not use all the sauce) and decorate with the garnishes. If you prefer, you can also toss the noodles in the gravy before adding the garnishes. Serve with lemon wedges. The sauce will also keep and freeze.
1/2 cup Liquid with Corn Starch: I recommend using additional stock for the 1/2 cup in this step but you can take this portion from the four cups of seafood stock in the ingredient list. Or you can use water or low-sodium chicken or other stock to end up with a total of 6 1/2 cups liquid in the sauce. This recipe uses 6 1/2 cups stock so if you use water you may need to adjust the seasonings a little.
More on Stock: A combination of seafood and meat stock also works well in this dish and is traditional in some regional versions of Palabok. I used homemade pork stock from carnitas I prepared recently (will link when published) and it worked very well.
Multi-tasking: This is the part where you can save time by using three burners at the same time during the early part of the cooking stage. I used a small nonstick pan to cook the shrimp and tofu in batches while the sauce got its start on another burner. I used a third burner and pot to boil water for the hard-boiled eggs and rice noodles.
Smoked Fish: If you don’t have access to Filipino tinapa (smoked fish) I recommend the Ducktrap Smoked Rainbow Trout Fillets (the regular kind, not Lemon Pepper or Maple Glazed)