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What Eating with My Hands Means to Me (and 6 Other Filipinos)

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While most Filipinos today eat using a spoon and fork, the traditional way of eating is kamayan, or “with hands.” Kamayan was the customary way of eating in the Philippines prior to Spanish colonization in the 16th century, and although utensils are more accessible and common now, Pinoys often eat this old school way for big celebrations, while on holiday, or just to pay homage to their cultural history.

"For Filipinos, feeding each other is a way we demonstrate love, and this particular way of eating, [is] a literal, tactile way of connecting with what nourishes us and the land it comes from," says Katherine Prince, an activist and organizer with the Portland, Oregon, chapter of GABRIELA, an organization for Filipina (Pinay) women. "To me, using my hands and seeing the banana leaves reminds me that even how we eat can be colonized, and my participation in this ancestral tradition is revolutionary in its own right.”

A mix of fried fish, longanisa, lumpia, pancit, and nilaga served with vinegar and onions, ketchup, banana ketchup, chopped tomatoes, and fresh mango over rice.
A mix of fried fish, longanisa, lumpia, pancit, and nilaga served with vinegar and onions, ketchup, banana ketchup, chopped tomatoes, and fresh mango over rice. Photo by Celeste Noche

The term kamayan can be used to describe the act of eating by hand, but a traditional kamayan meal is a feast served family style, usually over banana leaves. There’s no limit to what you can eat when hosting your own kamayan, but in general, grilled and fried things with rice are easier to eat sans utensils, because they aren’t as messy as soups and stews (though that didn’t stop my mom from serving soup in bowls at our last kamayan, so anything’s fair game).

Some basic kamayan guidelines:

  1. This should go without saying, but, wash your hands.
  2. Try to eat mostly with one hand, keeping the second hand clean for drinking.
  3. When taking food, use your fingers to pinch the food into a clump at your fingertips (don’t let it settle onto your palm).
  4. After taking a bit of ulam (the meat or vegetables) and rice with your fingers and thumb, use the your thumb to push the food into your mouth.

Because traditions vary for everyone, I spoke to some Filipino friends (in the food industry and otherwise) about what kamayan means to them. They come from all different backgrounds—some grew up in the Philippines, some in America, some have been eating kamayan since before they could remember, and some tried it for the first time as adults. Our common ground is honoring a tradition that helps define our cultural identity.

Chef Carlo Lamagna is both creator of Twisted Filipino, a dinner series with reimagined takes on Filipino classics, and executive chef at Clyde Common, a European-style tavern in Portland, Oregon. For Carlo, who grew up in the Philippines, kamayans weren’t uncommon but they were always memorable. “At our house, we would often do these dinners in our garage to bring everyone together, to talk and share life experiences over a unique meal. We would go and grab a couple of banana leaves from the empty lot next door, wave them over an open flame, and lay them on the table. We would pool money together and go to the palengke (open market) and get some pork, chicken, fish, and veggies to throw on the grill or prepare classic Filipino dishes like pinakbet (vegetables in fish or shrimp sauce) or dinengdeng (vegetable stew with fermented fish or shrimp paste), tortang talong (grilled eggplant omelette) or whatever we wanted to eat that day. Pile everything in the middle, bring out the rice, and let the stories flow. A lot of my greatest friendships were forged or solidified over those meals.”

Although kamayans are widely celebrated and hosted today in honor of Filipino tradition, the lasting effects of colonization meant there was a time when eating with your hands was considered lowly and improper. When the Spanish came and introduced their customs to the Philippines, they saw indigenous locals eating by hand as barbaric—as was often the case and justification of most Western countries colonizing foreign land. And although the Spanish have been gone for more than 200 years, the mentality of western superiority lingered, tainting the perception of what is proper and respectable—especially for older generations.

“My lola was a very proper doña,” says Yana Gilbuena, chef and creator of the pop-up dinner series SALO. “For her, ‘proper’ was the Spanish way: full-on table settings and straight backs. She even sent me to finishing school. [Our cook] was the one who taught me how to eat with my hand, properly. She told me I had to use just three fingers, pack the rice with meat and use my thumb to push the food into your mouth. I remember the first time I tried, it was a mess. I had rice all over me and all over the floor. Our cook even made fun of me. She was like: that's what you get for being too proper.”

Conversely, Sarahlynn Pablo of Filipino Kitchen, a Chicago-based food media and events group, immediately associates kamayan with her grandmother: “My lola, may she rest in peace, used to eat every meal kamayan. With a metal finger bowl at her side, she washed her hands before and after every meal. Since she was a farmer, her hands reflected the years of work she did. She worked to grow food with her hands. And it was only fitting that she used her hands only to feed herself.” Pamela Santos, writer and host of the podcast Bread and Roses, feels similarly: “My family ate kamayan maybe half the time, and my lola 99% of the time. If anything, eating kamayan freed me up when it came to eating different cultural foods, and [taught me] not to rely on having utensils around. I really feel Filipino when I eat kamayan, even when the food isn't Filipino.”

As a Filipina growing up in America, I felt pressure to disassociate from my heritage. Western and lighter skin was always “better,” so I accepted the papaya “whitening” soap handed to me after coming back tanned from summer camp when I was fourteen. I refused to learn Tagalog. I tried to sneak white bread sandwiches to school for lunch. Seeing our national dishes like balut (a developing bird embryo) on Fear Factor or watching Andrew Zimmern visit my motherland in an episode of “Bizarre Foods” didn’t help, either. Zagat even did segment about kamayan—as a part of a series called “Bizarre Bites.”

Mainstream Western media’s branding of our cuisine as “bizarre” is reductive, and it establishes us as the “other,” a direct contrast to the inclusive, welcoming attitude about dining that is at the heart of Filipino culture. I see it in the way my mother habitually makes extra food, so there’s always enough for unexpected guests. It’s in the way the first question heard upon entering anyone’s house is “kumain ka na?” (“Have you eaten?”). And it’s in the way, at the end of an enormous feast—after you’ve already had seconds and dessert and gone back for thirds—your host sends you home with baon (takeaway leftovers) for the next day. Whether you spend hours preparing lechon (roast suckling pig) or have a simple picnic on the road, the heart of kamayan is inclusivity.

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"On the outside, a kamayan may look savage or unsanitary—but it's an integral part of our heritage," says my friend, Camille Hernandez, a community developer in Fullerton, California, who spent her summers camping at the beach with her family, eating kamayans for lunch. "Everyone is welcome to the table: the eating experience is just as much a learning experience. The crab leg that my cousin and I fought over [was a lesson in] conflict-resolution. Making rice pyramids with my Lola was a lesson in collaboration. Uncle Danny also reminded us that any food left untouched would automatically go into his mouth. Aunty Virgie showing us how to clean our hands with lemon was a lesson in environmentalism and sanitation. Kamayan is family time well spent and love lived out. We learned how to eat like our ancestors, how to appreciate the upbringing of our immigrant parents, and how to always stay connected to [our] homeland.” There is nothing bizarre about this.

Today, hearing stories from fellow Pinoys and seeing the resurgence of Filipino cuisine in food media feels like a big step. Whether it’s sharing our favorite food memories on the podcast Racist Sandwich, the San Francisco restaurant FOB Kitchen redefining a racial slur, or readers calling out media for misrepresentation, we’re sharing Filipino heritage on our own terms. Our celebration of kamayans is a response to centuries of oppression, where we can reconnect with one another and introduce our culture to new friends in a personal and, well, hands-on way.