Culture

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

April  3, 2017

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. 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).

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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.”

As a Filipina growing up in America, I felt pressure to disassociate from my heritage... Seeing national dishes like balut on Fear Factor or watching Andrew Zimmern visit my motherland in 'Bizarre Foods' didn’t help.

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.

"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.

38 Comments

taxidog April 22, 2017
This is (as always, thanks Celeste!) a great article. I enjoy reading about the culture of my lovely Filipina coworkers that they so generously share with me. Katie, I hope your message was not actually that the way an entire culture eats is disgusting and unsanitary. That's sad and highly offensive. Handwashing takes care of that. Simply avoid eating your own meals with your hands. Everything else we touch in our environment is WAY more likely to make us sick. That's why nurses (like myself) wash our hands so much. I hope you can find tolerance for cultural traditions that don't even affect you.
 
Annada R. April 8, 2017
Thank you for an enlightening article, Celeste! I did not know this aspect of the Filipino culture. Eating with hands is such a big part of Indian culture that I cannot think of eating my everyday food like rice, dal, roti and vegetables with silverware. As my husband pointed out to me, there is a very scientific yet ancient basis for eating with hands with roots in Indian healing science, Ayurveda. See that's the beauty of age old cultures! They all have some deep meaning and logic behind what they practice. It's up to us to find out those reasons and value them.
 
Bevi April 8, 2017
Just a quick note to say thanks for this and other recent articles that highlight food and meal traditions in other parts of the world. I love food52's approach to showcasing global cuisines from all reaches of the planet. It's interesting and enlightening.
 
Katie H. April 7, 2017
This topic is not about food, rather how food is delivered. And eating with one's finger is non hygienic. That is why most cultures use utensils, that is to say they want to avoid the infectious that would occur with unsanitary means of food delivery
 
Author Comment
Celeste N. April 8, 2017
ok, katie. good luck with those tacos and sandwiches
 
Panfusine April 8, 2017
most cultures? really? I think you're unable to differentiate between 'restaurant' food and cultures across the world or are sufficiently ignorant about the latter. In case you did not read the part about the mandatory washing of hands' BEFORE & AFTER the meal (as opposed to wiping on a napkin), allow me to remind you that the fingers are evolved for feeding across species. Kindly do not confuse restaurant and eating establishment 'fads' (that have become mainstream) as the norm. cutlery is the norm across the world today purely because of 'convenience' (watching TV and eating out of a bowl comes immediately to mind)) and not because they've displaced evolution.
 
Katie H. April 7, 2017
If by worthwhile foods, you mean eating every single food item as being deep fried with super sweet drinks to wash it down. then no, I guess my food choices are not "worthwhile" (whatever that means).
 
Katie H. April 7, 2017
Have you ever heard of napkins both paper/cloth? That is why @ parties, food and drink is offered with napkins.
 
Pamela K. April 7, 2017
Katie - again, let's try this again. You are on a food site that presents multiple perspectives and stories about food. In what way are you furthering the dialogue? What is your purpose in talking horrendously, grossly negative about an entire people's food, which you so ineptly generalized above as deep fried and super sweet? Where is your purpose?
 
Katie H. April 7, 2017
Whatever makes someone assume that a negative comment would naturally be white? I am Asian. And food pathogens did and do exist in the 20th and 21st centuries.
 
alice April 7, 2017
so do you eat sandwiches with cutlery? pizza? hot dogs? cookies?<br />
 
Pamela K. April 7, 2017
Who called you white? We directly responded to your use of the words "disgusting" and "nonhygienic."<br />Let's keep this all the way real. What purpose did you have to tell a PEOPLE that the way they grew up eating and passed cultural traditions down from generation to generation those descriptors? If you have a good reason that has nothing to do with being degrading, demeaning and in many ways completely dismissive of culture you say you don't belong to - I AM ALL EARS. <br />But trust, you would never say this to any of our faces.
 
Lily S. April 7, 2017
This article is so interesting and beautifully written. This is a part of Phillipino culture that I was previously unaware of, and I really want to give it a try and experience that community—and all the delicious sounding food! Eating with ones hands has been on my mind lately—In the most recent season of 'Chef's Table', Michelin-starred Indian chef Gaggan Anand was show sharing a meal at another restaurant with members of his acclaimed kitchen staff. In the scene, they were enjoying traditional Indian dishes (more conventional than what they would serve in their restaurant, which is the 7th best in the world), trying to get to the heart of what makes Indian food so delightful. They ate with their hands.
 
thechewinn-nova.com April 7, 2017
Since flu season is almost over, perhaps it is safe to experience kamayan at Jeepney in NYC, website says every Wednesdays & Thursday nights---http://www.jeepneynyc.com/kamayan/ and here how it looks---http://moderateindulgence.com/2014/05/02/kamayan-night-jeepney-nyc-filipino-feast-hands/
 
thechewinn-nova.com April 7, 2017
My lola who took care of us (mom managed her dress shop) prohibited us from using our hands while eating while my mom encouraged it when she’s around. Even as a kid I was at that time germophobic. It was disgusting, hand from one’s mouth to the food serve in the middle, everyone’s germs goes into the food. Only good for certain food, pieces of fried fish, steamed shellfish, sausages, fried chicken, etc but not for food with sauces, broth, or noodles/pasta. Just because it was part of ones tradition, does not mean it is right or sanitary. We use individual mini bowls for fish sauce, spicy, garlicky vinegar or bagoong (shrimp paste) and have SERVING SPOONS.
 
Author Comment
Celeste N. April 7, 2017
the cool think about traditions is that you can adjust them to what works for you, preferably without judging and trying to shame other people
 
Katie H. April 6, 2017
Disgusting and non hygienic manner of eating!
 
Author Comment
Celeste N. April 7, 2017
glad you think so, you're not invited anyway
 
Pamela K. April 7, 2017
Liiiiiisten, Katie. Mayor Bill deBlasio might be the only person to get away with eating pizza with a fork and knife, and that's with all of NYC laughing at him. <br />So I don't know who told you that eating with your hands AT ALL was disgusting. Have you met the 20th and 21st Century?
 
Orian April 7, 2017
Katie. Katie.katie.sad you'll never eat anything worthwhile in your life. Im so sad for your limited palate. I cry for you 😢🖒🖒🖒🤣
 
Ruby April 8, 2017
Katie H, if you weren't interested in this manner of eating why did you read the article? As a RN who works with immune compromised people I can tell you handwashing is the only evidenced based manner of preventing infection. When I come in contact with those who are singular focused like you I notice they do some rather hygienically unsafe things like pick that napkin slipped to the floor & continue to eat, not wash their hands before eating, "save" food at room temperature to eat later, run their hands through their hair, handle their cellphone, money etc while they are eating. The first guideline in this article was wash your hands, and anther was try to use one hand. What is your issue? By the way I am a African American who appreciates reading about another culture.<br />
 
Jimmy J. April 6, 2017
Personally, I think it's nasty to eat with fingers. Spoon and fork? Looks stupid in a restaurant. I perceive it as low class. My GF now, eats with a fork and knife and uses a spoon for soup.
 
Author Comment
Celeste N. April 7, 2017
hmm.. this sounds familiar... almost as if we've heard white people saying this before... 🤔🤔🤔
 
Pamela K. April 7, 2017
1. No one asked you what you perceive as low class. But since you started, I bet you'd love to eat with your hands with celebrity white chefs making it a new thing.<br />2. Japanese people eat sushi with their hands. It's y'all who aren't from the culture that eat with chopsticks at the wrong times. <br />3. Who brought your GF into this? Let me guess her race.
 
alice April 7, 2017
do you eat pizza with a fork and knife? do you eat hot dogs with a fork? what about potato chips, how the fuck do you eat those?
 
Orian April 7, 2017
I hope you eat banana with your fork and knife. Do you know what's low class? Telling other cultures that they are low class. Stop eating sandwiches with a fork and knife weirdo.
 
Panfusine April 7, 2017
Jimmy Johnson - spoken like a true narrow minded blinkered individual. I suppose one's own true class is often reflected in how you perceive others..
 
Juliet April 4, 2017
Eating with my hands is the best thing ever and no need to be from certain countries, some food just screams to be eaten with you hands, there's something deeply satisfying about it... that slogan 'finger licking good' works for a reason, and they are right!
 
Pamela K. April 7, 2017
I so agree! Thanks!!!
 
Ashton C. April 4, 2017
I lived in the Philippines for two years. On the occasions where we would eat with our hands, it was almost always during a celebration and there was always something so intimate about it. I miss that and now I am craving lumpia and adobo...
 
Author Comment
Celeste N. April 7, 2017
the intimacy is my favorite part about kamayans, too ❤️
 
Snap F. April 4, 2017
Yay! I'm so pleased to read more from Celeste. Love the Racist Sandwich shoutout too. Such a great podcast!
 
quiche'n'tell April 4, 2017
Many Indians feel that eating with their hand definitely feels more satisfying. I think it helps develop our fine motor skills required to break rotis, parathas, dosas etc using just the five digits on the right hand.
 
Samantha V. April 4, 2017
... white Americans eat fried chicken, ribs, sandwiches, raw vegetables, pizza-- all kinds of finger foods! And a lot of people aren't really careful about washing their hands before they eat. This Filipino custom looks sanitary enough to me. <br />
 
Whiteantlers April 3, 2017
This was a beautiful article. I am Caucasian but often eat with my hands because I like experiencing my food that way. Peace through food and music!
 
Panfusine April 3, 2017
Loved the post, thank you for sharing. It brings back nostalgic memories about Indian feasts, served on banana leaves and eaten with the right hand. nothing brings the world closer than discovering such common traditions!
 
Author Comment
Celeste N. April 7, 2017
i love that eating by hand is a tradition that survives in other countries, too! i'm so glad this brought back happy memories for you ❤️
 
Panfusine April 7, 2017
The traditions are fading out in India as much as it seems to be in other parts of the world. I think as we grow older, we tend to come back a full circle in order to appreciate what we turned away from earlier.<br />