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.
Soap, water, and toothbrush – how Filipino hands rediscover quality
When mom sets up the balikbayan [gifts and goods sent to family and friends remaining in the Philippines] box, she disappears inside the cardboard container with a roll of duct tape to secure its corners. Stacks of canned food, toothpaste tubes, hard candies, and linens surround the basement floor in a line-up of what will go into the box first. We’d stock up on these items over a few months, keeping in mind our family’s preferences and favorite American products. Along with groceries, mom would ask everyone to sort out what we have and find things we’d be willing to send as a gift abroad. Mom’s guidelines to balikbayan box hand-me-downs:
Clothes that are too small would fit your younger cousin.
Clothes that are out of style would be a big hit with the teenagers.
Old shoes and clothes with a little bit of wear and tear, your tita can fix that.
Even pairs of sneakers covered in dirt were acceptable to add into the box. If using an old toothbrush to scrub the shoes clean worked for us, it surely wouldn’t be a problem for our relatives to do. Though I’ve never been to the Philippines, I imagine the skill of my family’s hands as they handle the balikbayan box, in all its excessive duct tape glory.
Everything we would have typically tossed aside as unwanted is a gem in their eyes. It doesn’t mean that our relatives have bad taste and don’t deserve brand new clothes. What this whole gesture proves is that we are so quick to find a replacement for the sake of convenience. If there’s a major stain on a shirt, I might buy a new shirt instead of experimenting with bleach. In the Philippines, our relatives would handwash the stain away. With soap and water, they’d use a toothbrush against the dirty soles of shoes. They’d get every corner until it looks brand new.
My relatives don’t necessarily need the balikbayan box, but sending these goods to the Philippines is considered our pasalubong. It translates to “something for when you welcome me,” similar to the concept of souvenir giving. Coming from a nation whose greatest export is its people, Filipino immigrants pack balikbayan boxes as a way of giving back to the family they left behind. It’s a thank you for the continuous support and an invitation for the whole family to enjoy the success gained abroad. Sending balikbayan box isn’t necessarily an obligation, but duty to the family plays a strong part in the giving. It’s a thoughtful gesture that reminds family in the Philippines that they’re remembered despite the long distance. However, in most cases, many overseas Filipinos’ leave home in order to support their families in the homeland.
Along with requested items and groceries (Toblerone by the bulk and all the canned goods after a ShopRite Can Can Sale), secondhand items are part of the pasalubong. Mom encourages us to give what we don’t want because in the Philippines someone will treasure them. They may not be the family member who the gift is intended to (we’re all guilty of regifting what we don’t like), but the wealth of balikbayan boxes are typically shared in the neighborhood. Growing up, my parents expressed the importance of valuing what we own and how as kids they maintained the condition of their belongings. They understand the resourcefulness of Filipinos and thus, pack the balikbayan box for our loved ones.
When the box finally arrives after a month of shipping, I would see things I once owned worn by someone in a photograph. The person may not even be a relative but someone in the neighborhood my family extended the gifts to. Somehow my clothes don’t look the same in these pictures. They appear spotless, clean, almost perfect. My family’s kamayan—both the givers and receivers—values what we have as blessings. One end prepares a box to send on a ship across the world, and the other puts in the effort and skill I wish I had. With clothes in a tub of water, my relatives rub the fabric against itself to rid dirt and stains. They know how to take care of their belongings with a hand labor that seems natural. They know the friction that rediscovers the quality of hand me down clothes. My relatives in the Philippines preserve the condition of their material goods. They are the best people to send gifts to because most of the time, they know its worth more than we do.
Hand-massage, from the Philippines by Frederick FN Noronha
The ancient indigenous practice of hilot [Filipino massage] recognizes the natural benefits of touch therapy. This “” relies mainly on the healing hands on the body as a remedy for elemental imbalances. A manghihilot [healer] is traditionally revered as someone with an elevated sense of touch. By feeling the patient’s palm, the healer can gauge the body’s health in terms of the four elements: earth, water, air, and fire. The healer then feels the patient’s back to check temperature changes, lumps, and muscle tension before initiating the proper treatment. Whether a patient suffers from mental (e.g., stress, anxiety) or physical (e.g., fever, bone dislocation) sickness, the manghihilot eases the body by kneading muscles and tissues, and applying pressure with specific hand techniques. This session may last for a few minutes or can be extended to last for several follow-up appointments.
When needed, healers incorporate special oils, lotions, herbs, and banana leaves to supplement the treatment. The minimalism of hilot stems from the idea that “” and that illness is an imbalance of energies and spiritual strength. These imbalances can surely be treated by over the counter medication, but hilot insists that these ailments can be fixed through the work of experienced hands. This Filipino massage therapy values the natural remedy generated by a healer’s kamayan. The natural remedy is a healing alternative that doesn’t demand excessive devices or prescriptions. The manghihilot’s kamayan offers a real, physical treatment that doesn’t call for fancy technology and major concerns on sanitation. Hilot is done without gloves, utensils, and assists. Hilot celebrates the natural abilities of the body to heal itself and is more specific to a patient’s needs. The healer is aware of what parts of the body need treatment and what particular treatment works best for the patient’s situation.
Prior to modern medicine, the manghihilot served as the main health care specialist in the Filipino community. These healers were the go-to people when it came to minor injuries and illnesses. Though the tradition is evolving with the times, the unconventional procedures (pulse reading, temperature analysis, excrement analysis, phrenology, etc.) offer accessible care in Filipino communities. Visiting local healers eliminates the generally tedious process of consulting medical doctors. Part of the convenience relies on the personal connection between the manghihilot and patient. Because most healers are local and related to their patients in that regard, patients can easily trust their manghihilot without worrying about medical bills adding up. The focus is on natural healing that can be performed by manghihilots who are also neighbors, friends of a friend, or even relatives.
As the manghihilot mentions in the video, the sensation of touch can lend the patient confidence and reassurance that their ailment can be alleviated naturally. There is comfort in feeling the weight of the bare hands on the body and the warmth of the living touch. Elders and mysticism are strongly involved in the practice of hilot as certain techniques are generational and regarded as a sixth sense connected to the health of the body. However, hilot can be administered casually. A mother can massage her children’s joints, for example, as a way of checking their physical health as they grow. In a way, the experienced hands of healers—whether they’re elderly, parents, or peers—reminds the patient that he or she is protected and literally, in good hands.
Preparing & gutting Milkfish for Sinigang dinner by Terri Ewbank
In this home video, a daughter and son witness their mother prepare bangus [milkfish] for dinner to realize that sinigang bangus [Filipino sour soup with milkfish] requires tedious labor. The mother’s certainty in her knife work demonstrates the human touch behind a task her daughter believed was done automatically. The young girl asks, “Doesn’t it come already cut?” Her mother answers by placing more fish guts on the table before hosing the blood clean.
Unlike the romance in Joseph O. Legaspi’s poem "Imagined Love Poem to My Mother from My Father,” the children watch their mother’s preparation with fear and disgust. This fear and disgust evolves into a fascination with the graphic task as well as sympathy for both the fish and their mother. Unfamiliar with the fish’s anatomy, the son begs his mother not to touch the “snake.” The daughter also questions her anatomy in relationship to the raw fish and compares what she sees to the inside of a human.
Though the video isn’t an overt tutorial on preparing fresh bangus, Terri Ewbank exposes her kids to the necessary violence that changes a slimy fish into sustenance for the family. Kamayan, here, carries a selfless connotation. The labor of her hands displays the intimacy of her love for her family as she draws blood from a helpless fish. Preparing bangus—scales, guts, blood, and all—the mother chooses to handle the fish with her own hands instead of relying on fish market services. Despite the son’s pleas to not touch the fish guts, she reassures her kids that gutting bangus is a needed preliminary step before they can enjoy its taste.
From the camera lenses, the daughter cannot pause the action of her mother’s kamayan, which symbolizes the kamayan legacy. As she and her brother continue to watch the task for what seems to be the first time, the daughter claims, “I’m never gonna do that.” But even if she decides to avoid the task in the future, the daughter calls “dibs on the eyeball” – a part of the fish Filipino children learn to enjoy from the example of their parents. More importantly, the children recognize their mother’s love for them in her handling of the fish. After cleaning the gutted bangus, the son asks for his mother to clean his feet too. This evokes the line from Legaspi’s poem: “Do unto me, the spy/ up on the thick fruit tree, as you have done/ unto the milkfish?” The literal sacrifice put in the labor of preparing fish equates the mother’s sacrifices to her children.
My mermaid, I watched you scaling milkfish.
Your hands and arms were silver,
and your body flecked
with otherworldly raindrops.
You were a silver mine to be mined.
“Imagined Love Poem to My Mother from My Father” by Joseph O. Legaspi
Joseph O. Legaspi’s creation myth about his mother and father’s love in “Imagined Love Poem to My Mother from My Father” romances the movement of his young mother’s guiding hands on the kitchen knife. The poem celebrates a “singular love and beauty in such a brutal and necessary chore as gutting and scaling fish” as the inherent elegance of violence enchants the speaker.* The fish willingly entangles itself in the net for this moment before the chopping board; it is its fate to be transformed into a meal by the gentle hands of the cook. The father wishes for a similar destiny as he asks, “Do unto me, the spy/ up on the thick fruit tree, as you have done/ unto the milkfish?”
From the fishermen’s long hours at sea to the mother’s cooking, Legaspi’s poem honors the labor of hardworking hands. The poem insists that, though she uses tools, Legaspi’s mother’s hands are the essential, human touch to preparing the fish. With the necessary violence and care in the preparation, Legaspi’s mother blesses her family with the work of her hands—her kamayan—and continues this way of loving for the sake of her future husband and son.
*Philip Levine, Foreward of Imago
Sandok – the spoon that serves all
Taking from a communal bowl may be a familiar thing during household dinners, but for Filipinos, the sharing continues even at public restaurants. A server might take each person’s order but once the dishes hit the table they’re for everyone, and almost immediately, someone will request extra plates and silverware before digging in. Because eating with Filipino company means sampling every dish, serving spoons are required for each entrée. This necessary utensil is known as a sandok, or ladle, and can vary in size and shape so long as it does the task. The sandok might as well be an iconic Filipino utensil: it may just be a spoon, but it’s the spoon that serves all. Though the point of eating kamayan style ignores utensils, the sandok makes up for the down side of finger-licking eating. Instead of mixing saliva into the communal feast, diners use the sandok to place their serving on their individual plates. Each dish requires its own sandok to prevent contamination that might quicken the expiration date of the food. To preserve the integrity of the food, there’s a sandok for the rice cooker, the pot on the kalan [stove], the bowls of ulam, and the sawsawan [sauce]. Once each plate is filled, the diner can then kamayan.
Using a sandok may seem like a formality, but the practicality of the serving spoon upholds Filipinos’ resourceful culinary attitude. In the household kitchen, the cook scoops a portion from the pot to serve those seated at the table. This ensures that the food is served hot in the communal bowl(s). When the bowls are empty and everyone wants seconds or thirds, the cook adds more ulam. If most Filipino families follow the same habits as the cooks in my family, then Filipinos prepare meals that last beyond lunch and dinner. The chicken adobo will be our dinner and baon [take out/packed meal] the following day at work or school. That said, the sandok is especially useful when eating leftovers. Instead of heating the whole pot, weuse a sandok to put our desired serving size onto a plate/bowl to then heat it in the microwave. The gesture is reminiscent to buffet style serving, which seems appropriate considering Filipinos like to feast together. But it’s a feast that lasts as long as the food is good to eat and available.
Kamayan may not be an effective method when eating pancit noodles, but one’s hands are the best utensils for partaking in Filipino cuisine. As certain culinary experiences demand chopsticks, fork, knife, spoon, or a combination of utensils (sporks, even), Filipino dining favors kamayan, or what seems to be a lack of utensils. Blogger Marketman suggests that kamayan is useful since most Filipino foods, especially recipes that are grilled, fried, or dried, are manageable by hand. However, the minimal kamayan way also demonstrates Filipino resourcefulness, as the banana leaves reduce garbage and limit the dishwashing. Kamayan is convenient when one simots, or savors, the last bite. Every last bit mustn’t go to waste as “one must clean the banana leaf by herding all those stray grains of rice with one’s fingers into a final little pile and eating that too.”
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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