A Meal Fit For A King: Kamayan Feast
When you imagine a grand, formal feast, you might imagine fine silver, delicate china, trays upon trays of entrees, and dainty portions. But the finest way to dine in the Philippines is a more pull-up-your-sleeves, hands-on kind of experience.
Every shared Filipino meal already feels like a feast, but the king of all Filipino feasts is the kamayan—a communal yet intimate meal, shared with family and friends, and the soul of Filipino cuisine. The kamayan is centered around a long table, lined with lush green banana leaves; a mountain of food like piles of treasure waiting to be claimed — a mound of fluffy white jasmine rice, piled high with myriad savory dishes like grilled tilapia, lumpia (Filipino fried spring rolls), a hearty dish like adobo, steamed vegetables, and fresh fruit —runs down the center. Add in a group of people at the table, maybe even as big as an army, and the meal becomes a great way to bring a community together through delicious food.
In the Philippines, kamayan means “with hands,” and true to the name, the entire meal is eaten with only the utensils God thoughtfully attached to the ends of your arms. It isn’t just a way of eating; it’s a shared experience, and a powerful means for building and fostering community—which is the purpose of all meals, but also the whole of Filipino cuisine. The food of the Philippines brings people together, in the same way that it brings different cultural influences and cuisines—Mexican, Spanish, Chinese, and American—together. In the sensory overload of today’s tech-driven world, kamayan is especially effective; it requires people to put their phones down, engage with one another, and enjoy the food—and the company—in front of them.
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.
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. Really, there’s little danger of not getting enough to eat, because the quantity of food is prodigious.
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.
Anyone concerned about their ability to wolf down sausages and egg rolls needn’t worry: Today, both kamayan feasts and boodle fights emphasize community more than competition.