At Boston’s Mei Mei Street Kitchen, a small crew led by Ellie Tiglao rearranges tables, turning the Chinese-American restaurant into a pop-up Filipino banquet hall. About 30 people mill about, sticking with the groups in which they came. A line forms to buy beer.
Guests chatter with anticipation as the food trickles out. I hear “lechooooon!” with the unrestrained excitement of people fawning over fried pork belly. Tiglao shapes long, wiggly snakes of white rice onto the banana leaves that cover each table. She places fried spring rolls called lumpia, small bowls of red shrimp paste and garlic-dotted vinegar, platters of whole crabs on vivid orange sauce, and dashes the display with flowers and blooming mangos. “I should have worn a smock,” says one diner in a light-colored dress shirt and tie.
For this New Year’s Eve celebration, it’s kamayan night. Tagalog for “by hand,” kamayan is the traditional Filipino form of eating. But the term has also come to refer to a communal-style Filipino feast, composed of colorful arrays of food that are usually served on banana leaves and eaten without utensils. By incorporating this practice — a way of eating that’s common at home, but less so in public — into restaurants and pop-ups, the new generation of Filipino-American chefs in the United States is rekindling the kamayan night as a way of harkening back to their roots.
A communal feast
It’s an opportunity, too, to introduce new people to Filipino cuisine through an eating experience that’s aesthetic enough for the Instagram crowd. Through this shared meal format, one that lends itself to closeness and camaraderie, Filipino-American chefs are trying to foster a sense of community.
Kamayans can be found at several restaurants in the new wave of Filipino cuisine, including Columbus, Ohio’s Bonifacio, New York City’s Jeepney, Philadelphia’s Perla, and San Diego’s Villa Manila. Kamayans lend themselves well to pop-ups too: From 2014 to 2015, chef Yana Gilbuena’s SALO series brought one to all 50 states. Tiglao hopes to take hers from a pop-up format to a weekly occurrence at her anticipated Somerville, Mass., restaurant Tanám, which will focus on fusing art with food.
Diners seat themselves and Tiglao approaches each section: “Do you all know how to eat with your hands?”
One section — a group of Filipinos who haven’t met before and share hearty greetings of “kumusta” — turns down the instruction; another section welcomes it. Tiglao demonstrates. She cups four fingers like a spoon as she explains that rice acts as a base. Add a piece of crispy pork belly (lechon) and a dab of liver sauce, then compress and push into the mouth with your thumb.
Kamayan requires a certain level of letting go: The shoulders slump and elbows widen as you carve out space for yourself at the table and hunker down toward the food. The less confident you might feel about getting food from hand to mouth, the closer you might hunch.
For many Filipinos, eating this way comes almost naturally. Eating with the hands has a long history in the Philippines. “There are numerous accounts written by Spanish missionaries of Filipinos eating with their hands throughout the islands,” says Alex Orquiza, a history professor at Providence College in Rhode Island.
But it was a practice that Americans in the Philippines attempted to stamp out after the 1898 Treaty of Paris handed control of the Philippines over from Spain to the United States. The agreement — which ended the Spanish-American War — also ceded Cuba, Guam and Puerto Rico to the United States.
“The move toward fork and spoon was a central goal for teaching American etiquette and domestic science in the early 1900s,” says Orquiza, whose area of focus includes Philippine-American relations. “Kamayan may have been fine under the Spanish period, but the American drive to reform and civilize Philippine culture was all-encompassing.”
For Gilbuena, of the roving SALO series, reclaiming kamayan was a motivating factor behind her pop-up circuit. “I want to make people feel okay: that it’s a natural thing to do,” she says. “For us to be so resistant to what was innate and ancestral … we need a little reboot.”
Without practice, it can get messy — but tonight, everyone tries. Diners get low, hands and faces dirtying as they pluck apart crab shells and house-cured longganisa, a sweet and fatty sausage. The cupped hand trick hasn’t worked for everyone, grains of rice are scattered across the spread. “Everyone feels like they’re on the same level,” says Dan Moren, for whom tonight is his first taste of Filipino food.
Across the table from Moren, and with no smocks to be found, the diner in the light-colored dress shirt has dipped the tip of his tie into his breast pocket. He and his dining partner talk with Moren and his girlfriend. The two couples introduced themselves when they took their seats — now they laugh and joke as they pass each other food.
An unexpected byproduct of the kamayan format is that it makes you put your phone down (once you’ve taken your photos of the spread, that is). “Instead, you talk, and really engage with everyone around you,” says Krizzia Yanga, owner of Bonifacio.
Her Columbus restaurant hosts both an individualized form of eating by hand called “Boodle Nights” — guests order a la carte, and servers show them how to eat with their hands — and monthly kamayan dinners. At Bonifacio’s kamayans, guests are encouraged to sit with people they don’t know. The restaurant serves complimentary cocktails and leaves conversation starter cards on the table.
A home away from home
Bonifacio’s kamayan dinners are informed by Yanga’s experience of growing up Filipino-American in suburban Ohio.
“Filipino parties were everyone’s home away from home,” says Yanga, who moved to the United States from the Philippines when she was 3 years old. “For the Filipino immigrants that I grew up around, they weren’t surrounded by family and they couldn’t visit home during the holidays.”
So every week, the Filipino families of her small Ohio suburb gathered at her family’s house to tell stories over a huge meal. Yanga recalls those nights as full of celebration, fun, and being “unapologetically Filipino,” as she calls it. At Bonifacio, she wanted to recreate that experience.
For Yanga, kamayan and family are tightly linked. While eating by hand was common for her growing up, kamayan as an expression of family and celebration didn’t resonate until she made her first trip back to the Philippines at age 13 and saw family that she hadn’t seen in a decade.
“We brought some ingredients from the fresh market to the beach, and all the adults started prepping the sides and grilling the fish while my cousins and I played in the ocean, trying to communicate in two different languages,” she says. “We ate with our hands around a big table piled with tons of food, and that’s my first real memory of knowing ‘family’ as a feeling.”
Bettina Makalintal is a writer based in Somerville, Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Atlantic and New York magazine.