Filipinos Eat with Their Hands and So Should You

Learn about the practice of kamayan from a Filipino-American who credits the tradition with sparking her passion for all things food.  

“Kain Na!” This call to eat in the Philippine language, Tagalog, is a common phrase heard if you’re in the presence of Filipinos about to dine—and one I frequently heard as a kid. As a Filipino American, I grew up with the best of both the Philippine and American cultures. It’s true that many cultures celebrate occasions with food, but to me, being a part of a Filipino family always meant an enormous amount of food no matter the importance of the occasion. To this day, when you walk into the home of my Lola (“grandmother” in Tagalog) or any Filipino household, you’ll be immediately guided to the kitchen as she warms up dishes she’s been cooking that day, served with a steaming bowl of rice from the rice cooker (as permanent a fixture to the kitchen counter as a microwave).

whole cooked fish on top of vegetables and meat
Courtesy of Katlyn Moncada

The quantity of food isn’t the only part of Filipino culture that sets our celebrations apart. As a kid, visiting an American friend’s house for dinner usually involved a table set with silverware and plates. But this dining etiquette is far from standard for families of the Philippines, including my own. Instead, we eat with our hands in a Filipino tradition called kamayan—which literally translates in Tagalog as “by hand.”

When hundreds of thousands of Filipinos migrated to the United States over the decades—including my father’s family in the 1970s—they brought this style of feasting with them. Today, this is also known as a “boodle fight,” which comes from American military slang. An entire troop and its commanding officers would gather to eat a meal with enough food to feed an army, symbolizing brotherhood and companionship as equals. Kamayan was a great way for me to learn a lot about the culinary traditions of my heritage and it eventually sparked my passion for all things food.

To get the kamayan started, layers of giant green banana leaves cover a long table to create a serving surface for the food. Filipino culinary delights are lined up down the center in magazine-worthy styling, including either steamed jasmine rice or the Filipino version of fried rice, which is a garlic-infused and pan-fried. From there, we pile on the inihaw, which is fried or grilled proteins, in the form of whole fish, pork kabobs, and other barbecued meats. Alongside the meats are sides of pancit (pan-fried rice noodles), lumpia (Filipino-style egg rolls), stews, and fresh or pickled fruits and vegetables to give your palate a break and act as a colorful contrast to the dark meats. If I’m at the table, I’ll be hoping for one of my favorite saucier dishes—chicken or pork adobo, where the meat is marinated in vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, peppercorn, and bay leaf before being cooked on the stove in all of its briny deliciousness. Finally, we top everything off with citrus-infused soy sauce or garlic vinegar before diving in hands-first. Let the boodle fight begin!

This isn’t the only way Filipinos eat, so if you’re ever invited to a Philippine household and aren’t keen to shovel food into your mouth with your hands, don’t worry. You’re also likely to receive a fork and spoon—which my family calls “scoop and shovel” style. In addition to the buffet of food, a typical kamayan with my family is filled with story time, laughter, and karaoke. It’s also to be expected that we take at least one family photo, as well as several photos of the food we’re about to enjoy.

six people in hawaiian shirts in front of green trees
Courtesy of Katlyn Moncada

No matter your ethnicity, food brings people together—and for Filipinos, a homecooked kamayan is a chance to show warmth and hospitality to anyone entering their home. If you haven’t had the fortunate opportunity to dine with this loving culture, I encourage you to find a Lola, who I’m sure would be happy to invite you into her home for some juicy, garlic-infused adobo over a bed of piping-hot rice.

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