Getting in Touch Through Kamayan, the Ultimate Filipino Feast
It's the ultimate finger-food experience.
Once when I was a little girl visiting my Filipina American aunt in San Francisco, she taught me how to eat the Filipino way using only my fingers instead of a fork or chopsticks. I loved it immediately. I loved the untamed feeling of picking up small mounds of rice along with a little meat and vegetable, and trying to scoop it into my mouth neatly the way my aunt could. It was the complete opposite of the rigidly proper knife-and-fork (and chopsticks) table manners I'd been taught at home. But while we were eating, my aunt warned me I shouldn't tell my mother because she wouldn't like it. It's complicated. After that, eating with my hands became a secret pleasure tinged with guilt. And of course I never told my mother.
Years later I reconnected with the childhood memory of eating with my hands, only this time it was out in the open along with others who share my Filipino heritage, and it was completely guilt-free. In fact, eating by hand was the whole point of the communal meal I attended called kamayan, hosted by Seattle chef Melissa Miranda, who was born in the Philippines, came to Seattle with her family, and recently opened a much-anticipated Filipino restaurant called Musang. It was at this kamayan — hosted at Melissa's home — that I rediscovered the tactile joy of eating by hand and the deeper joy of reconnecting with my cultural heritage.
What is Kamayan?
Kamayan means "hands" in Tagalog — one of eight major Filipino dialects — and is a communal feast where the food is laid out on a bed of banana leaves instead of plates and your eating utensils are your fingers. One of my fellow diners called it the ultimate finger-food experience.
With kamayan, there's no formality, no separate courses, and no passing of dishes (although it's perfectly okay to ask your neighbor to hand you a shrimp from across the table). And because all the food is arranged in close proximity, the flavors can mingle and meld together, so that the coconut milk from one recipe plays well with the fish sauce from another.
The idea is that eating with your hands in this communal way builds trust and intimacy among all the diners. It also means you can't use your cell phone to post the feast to your social feed. Instead, you are forced to be in the moment where it's just you, the other people at the table, and all that food.
Any get-together is a good excuse to eat kamayan-style — from birthdays to anniversaries and holidays — or maybe it's just a weekend and you want to gather friends and family to cook and eat together. Maybe you'll play Mahjong afterwards. It's been known to happen.
The kamayan tradition (also known as a "boodle fight") began in the Filipino military when quick meals had to be served to the troops and there was no time for laying out plates and utensils. And afterwards, cleanup was as quick and easy as rolling up the banana leaves.
These days, the tradition of kamayan is resurging with a new generation of young Filipinos eager to reinvigorate their cultural foods and heritage, whether they live in the Philippines or abroad.
Dishes served at kamayan are based on beloved family recipes from all parts of the Philippines, but can be interpreted with ingredients you find locally at regular markets, fish markets, and if you're lucky, a Filipino farmers' market or Asian specialty store.
A typical kamayan menu will include rice and noodles, a variety of meats and fish, fresh fruits and vegetables, and sauces. And instead of one person taking on all the cooking, preparing the food together is part of the kamayan tradition and is as important as eating together.
Here's what was on our menu:
- Ginataang Alimasag - (Crabs in Coconut Milk)
- BBQ Chicken
- Whole fried pompano
- Mechado - Filipino beef stew
- Grilled whole prawns (with heads on)
- Grilled vegetables
- Pickled vegetables
- Steamed rice
Laying Out the Feast
1. Preparing the banana leaves.
Banana leaves serve both as platters and as a subtle flavoring for the food. They're fairly easy to come by; you can buy fresh or frozen banana leaves online or in a specialty market. They come coated with cornstarch, which is removed by lightly toasting the leaves one by one over a flame on your grill or stove. Heating the leaves also softens them and turns the cornstarch shiny, while removing any off flavors from the cornstarch.
2. Setting the table.
A layer of newspaper was put down first to protect the tabletop. Next, the prepared banana leaves were spread out over the newspaper. Then, when all the food was ready, laying out the feast was a well-choreographed group effort and happened quickly and efficiently so the food was fresh and hot when we sat down to eat.
3. Laying the Feast
Melissa and her team began by creating a long mound of steamed rice down the middle of the banana leaves to form the foundation for the rest of the dishes. Next, pancit noodles were arranged along either side of the rice. Shallow indentations were made in the rice, and were lined with banana leaves and filled with a Filipino beef and vegetable stew called machado. Then come the rest of the proteins: marinated and grilled chicken, shrimp in the shell grilled with their heads on, whole fried fish, and crab curry. All the food was laid out in portions meant to be shared between every two people.
Next came grilled vegetables, pickled vegetables, freshly sliced pineapple, green mangos, melons, and oranges fanned artfully all along the growing mound of food, along with small bowls of dipping sauces. Crispy garlic chips were crushed by hand and sprinkled over the food, and finally, bottles of San Miguel beer were placed for every guest.
Melissa called everyone to the table, and when we finished oohing and aahing and making photos and videos we washed our hands and took our seats.
The Filipinos in the group started right in, teaching the non-Pinoys how to "pick, pack, and push." I'll explain: Using the fingertips of your dominant hand, you pick up a portion of rice, pack it together with a few bits of stew, curry, fish, or vegetables; and then, sloping your fingers towards your mouth, you push the food into it using your thumb. After a few tries, I got a feel for it, and I soon found myself easily eating with my hands, slipping the shell off a whole shrimp or sucking the meat out of a crab claw, and washing it all down with sips of beer.
Since eating with your hands truly means you can't pick up your phone in the middle of the meal, all of your attention is on the feast itself and the people around you. Soon everyone was sharing stories about family meals and family gossip, telling jokes and laughing hard while passing each other more crab legs, prawns, and greens. And what stories! There were silly puns you'd only understand if you grew up listening to your family speaking English with a strong Filipino accent. We shared origin stories about titas and titos (aunts and uncles), and lolas and lolos (grandmothers and grandfathers). There were so many stories told over a long and leisurely graze. I knew only a few people at the start of the feast, but by the end I felt like we were all cousins, and I felt proud of my heritage like I'd never felt before.
I started thinking this is the only way to eat. I started wondering how and when to do it again.
The tradition of kamayan has evolved from a meal served and eaten quickly out of necessity into an hours-long feast shared and savored slowly with friends and family. Whether or not you're of Filipino heritage, you can surely make your own version of kamayan, and experience the pure pleasure of creating intimacy and community, one fingerful of food at a time.
- Connect with Melissa Miranda on Allrecipes, and get her recipe for Ginataang Alimasag (Crabs in Coconut Milk).
- Follow Melissa Miranda on Instagram at musangseattle.
- Learn more about Filipino food and culture, and how to create a Filipino kamayan.
- Browse our full collection of Filipino recipes.
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This article originally appeared in the February/March 2020 issue of Allrecipes Magazine.