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Eat with Your Hands: Filipino Kamayan Dining from the San Fernando Valley to the Mission

Recently, Filipino cuisine and kamayan, in particular, have gained attention amongst diners and has become a sought-after experience for adventurous eaters. Anthony Bourdain recently declared Filipino food the next big food trend in 2017. He was referring specifically to the dish, sisig, a juicy diced up hash made of pig's face, ears, cheeks, and snout.

When the Spanish conquered the Philippines in 1521, they brought with them Spanish cooking, which natives quickly adopted. When the Philippines became a hub in the vast trade routes of the Spanish empire, the Spanish imported foods like maize, tomatoes, potatoes, chili peppers and chocolate to the islands from as far away as Mexico and Peru. Of course, other Asian cultures also found their way into Filipino kitchens. Today, Filipino dishes like Arroz Valenciana, Filipino-style paella, and lumpia (Filipino egg roll), reflect Filipino flavors that are still reminiscent of the cultures that influenced them.

Kamayan dining at Bamboo Bistro | Dave A. From Yelp
Kamayan dining at Bamboo Bistro | Dave A. From Yelp

All of this history contributes to the eclectic and sometimes hard to define Filipino cuisine of today.                                         

But, kamayan, or eating with your hands, is one thing that is truly Filipino. The Spanish stopped this native Filipino way of eating and taught Filipinos to eat “the civilized way” with utensils and silverware.

Today in the Philippines, kamayan is not often seen in restaurants but is more often found in the dining rooms and kitchens of peoples’ homes. In the U.S., the trend of diners seeking unique experiences has seen kamayan dining enjoy a surge in popularity in recent years.

Here is a look at two Filipino restaurants in California bringing the kamayan tradition to diners.

Pampangeuna kamayan dining | John G. From Yelp
Pampangeuna kayaman dining | John G. From Yelp

Pampanguena Cuisine, San Francisco

In their restaurant on Mission Street, Josie and Lan Yumul are bringing the flavors of the Philippines to San Francisco. Their restaurant, Pampanguena Cuisine, is named after the province they are from in Luzon, Philippines. Their food reflects the fresh fish, meat and produce they grew up eating. Josie emphasizes the healthy and fresh cuisine she’s committed to serving. All food is cooked to order and is either steamed or grilled.

A family owned restaurant, Josie and her husband, Lan, run the restaurant on the weekdays, and her kids come and help out during the weekends. She started Pampanguena in 2009 and has offered kamayan since 2013. She decided to expand her menu to kamayan after several customers came in and asked for it. She was a little surprised that people even knew what kamayan was.

Josie explains the literal meaning of the word kamayan, “Kamayan is from the Tagalog word kamay meaning ‘hands.’ It's our tradition in the Philippines. We grew up with all the people using their hands to eat."

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After offering kamayan for almost four years, she’s happy to see the variety of customers that comes to eat. “Even non-Filipinos are coming now and asking for it!” Josie says.

As to why she thinks kamayan is becoming more popular in mainstream dining, she comments, “It's an experience, and it's exciting. People bring their families here and learn about Filipino cuisine." 

Pampanguena Cuisine offers a twist on kamayan. Where most restaurants offer kamayan on banana leaves placed directly on the table, Josie serves the food on banana leaves in large baskets.  

Josie’s passion is in sharing her culture through her cooking, as she cooks all the food herself. She takes pride in hearing the diners tell her that her food is good since she is sharing her family traditions passed on to her. "I learned it from my parents since I was young. I was observing and cooking, and my parents were teaching us. I recognized all that they had taught us, and I applied this to my restaurant."

At Pampanguena, kamayan means passing on delicious traditions that have been in Josie’s family for generations and sharing them with her community.

Kamayan dining with grilled fish, boneless milkfish and mango salsa  | Daniel Belen
Kamayan dining with shrimp and mango salsa  | Daniel Belen

Bamboo Bistro, Panorama City

In an unassuming strip mall restaurant in Panorama City, a feast is being prepared. Servers are covering a table with large bright green banana leaves in preparation for the kamayan meal. For this layout, the rice is in the center of the leaves, going down the length of the table. The meats and sides are arranged stylishly around the edges.

This is Bamboo Bistro, one of the few Filipino restaurants in the Los Angeles metro area that offer kamayan.

The owner, Daniel Belen, describes kamayan dining as bringing together families. He remembers eating kamayan growing up as a boy in Manila, Philippines. "I grew up where we eat with the whole family, eating with our hands. Kamayan has been a part of our culture in the Philippines. It's a family style of eating and means togetherness of the whole family.”

But Belen knows that the true spirit of Filipino cuisine transcends any popular trend. Filipino cuisine is the cultural manifestation of centuries of the country's complicated history. 

"A lot of people have been asking me 'what is Filipino food?' Over many years, Filipino food has become a real fusion and a mix of many cultures."

Belen explained that in the Philippines, kamayan style dining is also known as Boodle Fight, named after the "army style" of eating. Soldiers, while resting to eat after a long day of marching, would eat off of banana leaves in the native tradition. After all, the soldiers could not be bothered to carry plates and silverware with them while on duty! So, soldiers piled the rationed rice and meat onto the leaves, and the “fight” commenced when the soldiers hurried to grab and eat as much food for themselves as possible before it was gone.

So how does eating with your hands change the dining experience? 

Belen answers, "You're allowed to be messy and indulge! This is more of a picnic atmosphere and gathering the family. Eating with your fingers, you end up eating more than you normally do!"

Over a table of food and with the freedom to eat with their hands, a group of people comes together, and you can't help but feel the joy humans receive from sharing food with one another. Eating with one's hands provides the physical connection to the food that allows your senses to take over in a way that we rarely allow in modern dining.     

Belen declares, “Kamayan is about sharing." 

Kamayan dining with grilled fish, boneless milkfish and mango salsa  | Daniel Belen
Kamayan dining with grilled fish, boneless milkfish and mango salsa  | Daniel Belen

How to Eat Kamayan

Watch an episode of Migrant Kitchen on L.A.’s Exploding Filipino Food Movement

Nervous about eating with your fingers? Here are some easy steps for looking like a kamayan expert:

1.     Create a small ball or mound of rice with your fingers right on the banana leaf. You can add a bite of protein or side to the bottom of the ball.

2.     Squeeze your fingers together and press down to compress your ball of kamayan goodness.

3.     Lift your fingers up while grasping your rice and place into your mouth.

4.     Enjoy the deliciousness!

5.     Extra credit: accompany your kamayan meal with a cold San Miguel, the official beer of the Philippines. 

When asked why it is important to keep kamayan dining alive, Belen responds "It shows the history of the Filipino way of eating. You wouldn't believe how many families come into my restaurant to teach kids who grew up in the U.S. to teach them the culture back home in the Philippines. It's nice to see the whole family learning the culture through Bamboo Bistro. For us to be a part of that, it's a great feeling."

Top Image: Kamayan dining with grilled fish, fried shrimp, eggplant, grilled squid and rice | Pampanguena Cuisine

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