The Tagalog term kamayan refers to eating a meal with one’s hands. Free of forks, spoons, and the “proper” utensils, Filipino kamayan demonstrates an intimacy with what we consume and that, perhaps, things taste better eaten off bare fingertips. The gesture may seem unhygienic and primitive for those accustomed to Western table etiquette, but kamayan to Filipinos represents a way that has survived many generations despite the pressures of modernity and adaptation in immigrant situations. Kamayan is a way of valuing, a way of handling, a way of loving the fried fish and rice combo best eaten with cupped fingers and the push of the thumb. Eating with one’s hands has its place in Indian, African, and Middle Eastern traditions, and it becoming a curious dining experience with the rise of Filipino restaurants celebrating kamayan style eating.
In a broader sense, the tradition of kamayan expresses Filipino respect and humility toward the things they use. Whether it’s the friction that rediscovers the quality of balikbayan hand-me-downs at the wash or the healing hands (hilot) over the body, kamayan signifies the value of texture, detail, and how touch can both protect and bless.
In this Tumblr series, CA+T explores the multiple interpretations of kamayan and brings to light how a gesture connects Filipinos across the globe with a common belief: one should value what is earned through the work of one’s hands. This series will also highlights the various responses to Filipino dining etiquette—or lack there of—challenged by Western norms and ideals. Each post will feature online sources (videos, photographs, creative writing, news articles) that convey how Filipinos share the kamayan experience beyond the dinner table. We invite our Tumblr audience to reblog and comment on our annotated posts to extend the conversation on the appropriateness of table manners and kamayan, which will hopefully educate and raise questions on the ways we consume.
So, hugasan ang inyong mga kamay [wash your hands], prop up one leg, and let’s kamayan.
As Filipino restaurants emerge around the globe, it’s important to note that kamayan style dining incorporates more than just eating with one’s hands. The kamayan experience is also about creating a familial atmosphere as diners share the meal with those seated around the table.Traditionally, various entrees are served on the length of banana leaves, which covers the table top in lieu of individual plates and bowls. Decorated over the vibrant green of these non-porous surfaces, stews, meats, and salads rest on the outskirts of a bed of rice. This set up encourages diners to be comfortable and casual as though they’re in the company of their own tito [uncle], tita [aunt], ate [older sister], kuya [older brother], mom, dad, and the rest of the family. People sit shoulder to shoulder, eating with their preferred hand and mixing foods together to achieve a rice-ulam ratio perfect for kamayan. Instead of asking for so-and-so to pass the bowl, diners reach for their desired food, which blogger Marketman explains “is typically warm or tepid, not straight out of the kawali[pan] piping HOT.” They can occasionally elbow one another and fight for the last piece of lumpia.
Kamyan isn’t limited to on-the-go dining; it’s a sit-down experience that handles even the seeming unmanageable dishes. To Filipinos, the opportunity to kamayan presents itself even with the sauciest of dishes. Marketman refers to sauce and soup as “moisture regulators” that help create the right rice consistency in each serving. He also notes that utensils and bowls are only necessary during kamayan to hold sauce, soup, and condiments. After mixing the liquid onto the rice, diners create little mounds to pick with their fingers and consume.
With kamayan nights and traditional food presentations, Filipino restaurants extend the intimacy of kapamiliya [family] to the masses. Countering Filipinos’ hiya, or shame, over their “exotic” dishes (challenge non-Filipinos to eat duck fetuses and pig blood), restaurants like Jeepney in NYC celebrate the sometimes messy, casual kamayan. Kamayan style dining in these public settings doesn’t reserve hand-eating to the household. Instead, these restaurants provide a comfortable space for Filipinos and non-Filipinos alike to explore Filipino cuisine traditionally and without shame and disclaimer. Kamayan doesn’t require any fancy technique or mannerism and isn’t considered rude or inappropriate in these spaces. It can be a clumsy way of eating, but these slip ups are part of the experience.
Filipino Dining Tutorial by Mikey Bustos
Known as the Ambassador of Filipinos on Youtube, Filipino-Canadian comedian Mikey Bustos provides the Internet with a tutorial on Filipino dining. Being raised in a community where kamayan is a common eating method, Bustos recognizes that eating with one’s hands is not necessarily wild “like a raging animal.” Like many of the Filipino customs featured in the video, kamayan represents a Filipino way perpetuated by the example of elders. Kamayan, Bustos says, is something “my lola [grandmother] taught me” and a gesture learned and accepted at home with the family. The graceful technique follows the three P’s: Pack, Pick, and Push with the thumb. And as lola introduces young Bustos to kamayan, his lolo [grandfather] feeds him bananas with every meal to prevent LBM [loose bowel movement]. The pairing of bananas with every meal might not be the best combination, but like kamayan it’s a cultural norm familiar to Filipino communities and quirkiness Bustos’ tutorial pokes fun at.
Eating away from home, Bustos acknowledges that the cultural norms of the Filipino community are not universal as he yearns for a spoon to effectively eat ulam[main entrée]. Unlike the Canadian dining etiquette that strictly uses a fork and knife, Filipino dining depends on spoons to carry sabao [soup] and rice to the mouth. Without a spoon, Bustos is handicapped, and eating feels like “half day.”
Beyond Filipinos’ advocacy of spoons, Bustos emphasizes the main rule in Filipino dining: don’t be wasteful. There is no definitive way of eating to the Filipinos. It’s a matter of preference. Diners can choose to eat with hands, spoon and fork, fork and knife, or even chopsticks so long as food doesn’t go to waste. If there are leftovers, Filipinos encourage saving the food for later as baon [takeout meal]. This resourcefulness shows the utmost respect to the hosts who provided the meal and welcomed guests to their home.
To the Filipinos, hands are tools for eating as well as cleaning despite a working dishwasher. Hands make the sign of the cross and gesture respect for the divine and for household guests. Though Filipinos like Bustos may value utensils to help maintain an ideal rice-ulam ratio, Filipino dining encompasses the kamayan experience as the meal begins with hands folded in prayer of thanksgiving and ends with an argument over who washes the dishes.
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We’ve set up a challenge to meet or exceed the 50% campaign mark by Friday, July 11, 2014, 11:59pm PST.
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Filipino diaspora. Ideas. Art. Community. The Center for Art and Thought is all of that & more. CA+T has a challenge for you! We want to exceed our fundraising goal by 25% by Sunday, June 29, 2014 11:59pm PST! With your generous donations, we can do this! CA+T relies on your support to keep our operations full-steam ahead! We can win this challenge! Don’t forget to share this post. Go Team CA+T!
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The Center for Art and Thought (CA+T) needs your help to raise funds to meet its day-to-day operational expenses for the rest of its 2014 programming. Please consider donating to our online Indiegogo campaign and forwarding this link to your friends:
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