Some say that eating is one of the best things to do in Iloilo. It’s true; I’ve spent many childhood summers here, and no matter the food I eat, it never disappoints.
There’s KBL for example—kadyos, baboy, kag langka—a soup dish made with pigeon peas, pork, and jackfruit soured with juice from the local batwan fruit. From the district of La Paz comes its famous batchoy, a noodle soup made with pork innards, chicken stock, and pork cracklings best eaten with two pieces of plain or cheesy puto and an ice-cold glass of Coke—the perfect afternoon snack. Then for dessert, halo-halo or mais con hielo to beat the summer heat.
Both my parents were born and raised in Iloilo, and ever since I can remember, our family has made it a point to come down and visit my grandparents. Our visits were always punctuated with food; from a hearty post-flight lunch at the nearest grilled seafood restaurant, down to last-minute shopping for signature Ilonggo snacks at the airport’s pasalubong center. But of all the delicacies this place has to offer, my favorite is still this steaming bowl of liquid umami we call pancit molo.
Pancit molo is a native dish that bears resemblance to Chinese wonton soup. Made with chicken broth, it contains rounded pork and shrimp dumplings mixed with shredded chicken, spring onions, and fried garlic. As the name suggests, it comes from the town of Molo, once the center for trade and commerce in Panay Island, and the designated Chinese quarter during the Spanish colonial period.
History shows that the Chinese began trading in Panay as early as the 10th century, bartering silk and porcelain with agricultural products from the locals. Like in many places around the Philippines, some of these merchants eventually married native women and brought pieces of their culture inside their homes. This might explain why a dish like pancit molo came to be, featuring ingredients like ground pork, chives, and wheat-based wonton wrappers also commonly found in other popular Chinese dishes.
We always stayed in Molo when we visited Iloilo; my late grandfather was from there, a descendant of one of the town’s original Chinese settlers. His ancestry might explain how he knew how to make pancit molo, even the wrappers, from scratch. According to my dad and uncles, Papa loved to make pancit molo for the family. If he was making it for lunch, he’d wake up early to get a head start with the molo balls, which had to harden under the sun for at least an hour before boiling. Depending on who was available—and willing—he would also delegate the smaller tasks to any of his eight children, from folding the molo balls to chopping the shrimp, to my dad’s usual errand: fetching any missing ingredients from the nearest tiangge.
Like my parents, my aunts, uncles, and cousins have all built their lives outside Iloilo—and in the absence of travel, we’ve learned to close the distance in other ways. But I’ve also found myself wanting to hold onto something a little more tangible, something that would ground me to my roots amid a whirlwind year.
Pancit molo is the quintessential dish in every gathering, big or small, bridging together generations of brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, fathers and mothers.
My dad never learned to make pancit molo, so I asked my uncles for my grandfather’s recipe instead. I didn’t know this at the time, but there was a secret ingredient that Papa always used: shrimp heads, finely chopped and strained over the soup. It makes a world of a difference in flavor, they say, giving the broth a richer, more savory taste. Whenever they missed Iloilo, they would make this version; sampling a few tweaks here and there, depending on local ingredients available, but never without the shrimp.
One afternoon, I decided to cook pancit molo. What was supposed to take at most two hours took me twice the amount of time to cook; I kept pausing to consult the piece of paper that held my uncles’ instructions, hoping it would magically turn into a video tutorial instead. Having never cooked a dish as monumental as this, I prayed that whatever strand I might have of Papa’s culinary gene would wake within me, as if to affirm my Ilonggo inheritance despite having been born and raised in Manila.
Eventually, after going through the painstaking process of extracting the juice from the shrimp heads, and folding and drying the molo balls, combining everything in the main pot came easier. I watched the molo balls swirl as I took a spoonful of light amber soup, surprised by the savory outcome of my own dish. At dinner, I asked my dad how he liked it; he was the closest reference I had to the original chef.
He told me it tasted just like home.
Of all the delicacies this place has to offer, my favorite is still this steaming bowl of liquid umami we call pancit molo.
The last time I stepped foot in Iloilo was over a year ago, and I haven’t seen my grandmother or relatives in the flesh since then. Papa passed away in 2014, leaving Mama living alone in Molo. Before the pandemic, our whole extended family always made sure to visit her every year. Now, it’s hard to say when any of us can return.
Unlike Papa, Mama isn’t patient enough to cook pancit molo from scratch, preferring to buy the molo balls pre-made instead. But it was still pancit molo, and it was still the dish that anchored us to their home. In all those visits there was always a bowl waiting for us on her table, drawing the family together no matter the places we’ve been. It’s the quintessential dish in every gathering, big or small, bridging together generations of brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, fathers and mothers. I remember how pancit molo graced every room in a large steel cooking pot; how sometimes it would even be the first dish to run out.
It’s comforting to know that wherever I go, I can now always recreate a piece of that home. Still, nothing ever beats having a feast, filled with the manic energy of a giant family that enjoys eating and laughing together—one day, I hope to find myself back in the same room.