In the United States, using your bare hands to shovel rice and meat into your mouth would get you some dirty stares or scolding from your parents. But in the Philippines, eating sans utensils is encouraged, and even celebrated. It’s a Filipino-style of eating called kamayan, an experience where eating quite literally brings you closer to other people

Chelsea Marra

In a typical kamayan, huge banana leaves doubling as plates and placemats are laid out on a long table. Then, steamed white rice and a wide array of Filipino food are presented in the center like piles of treasure waiting to be claimed. Add in friends and family at the table, and the meal becomes a great way to bring a community together through delicious food. Although the practice of eating meals with your hands is traditional and common in the Philippines, having a kamayan with a large group of people is usually reserved for big events. So I decided to bring my friends to one for my birthday, but it brought up one big question–what would my American friends think of this unconventional feast?

A Clash in Cultures

As an Asian-American, a majority of my life has been a balancing act between both American and Filipino culture. So when my mom suggested having a kamayan for my birthday dinner this year, I had my doubts. I didn’t think my American friends would enjoy eating with their hands, much less with unfamiliar food. But I tentatively agreed with the idea, thinking it would be nice to take a risk for once and do something different.

When I told each of my friends about my plan, I was met with hesitation nearly every time. Though they voiced their excitement for it, I could tell there was a hint of doubt they tried to hide at the thought of eating with their bare hands. I had one friend flat-out tell me she was going to ask for utensils anyway, which I definitely wouldn’t have blamed her for. If she had been in the heart of Philippines, she might have been thought of as a coward. But since Americans mainly reserved finger foods for burgers and fries, I let it slide. Despite their uncertainty, everyone still showed up that night hungry and eager to eat.

The Feast

My family chose to host the feast at Kuya Ian’s Bistro, a family-owned restaurant in Columbus, Ohio focused on traditional Filipino cuisine and homestyle cooking. The room we were brought into was separate from the rest of the dining room and had a very informal, relaxed vibe that helped ease my nerves about entertaining everyone that night. One by one, my friends filtered in until our long table of twelve was filled.

Once we all settled down, it was time to bring out the food.

Our server, Robbie Firmalan, first laid out the white rice and fried rice along the center of the table as he thoroughly explained the concept of kamayan to those who weren’t familiar. He kept the mood lighthearted as he joked around here and there, garnering laughs all around the table and making it feel as if he was more of a family friend than our server. Robbie then brought out a whole tray of barbecued pork on sticks, its sweet sauce practically glistening on the meat. He placed a few down for every two people sitting across from each other to assure that we all had our fair section of food to reach. The rest of the meal was served like this while we watched, our mouths drooling and stomachs rumbling.

Some of the other food brought out consisted of lumpia (Filipino egg roll), lechon kawali (crispy deep-fried pork), sweet and sour shrimp (with the full shell on–head included!), salted duck egg, longanisa (Filipino sweet sausage), and mussels. My sister and I showed everyone the ropes on how to eat properly, from scooping the rice up with your hand to twisting the heads off of shrimp.

When I tell you my friends began to devour the food the second they could, I’m not exaggerating. I was pleasantly surprised by how enthusiastic they were about the meal; in the end, everyone happily ate with their hands and was raving about how delicious everything was. At one point, some of my friends really got into it and started feeding each other by hand–which even I’m hesitant to do.

The whole meal was finished off with leche flan (a Filipino crème caramel dessert) topped with a plastic flower which bloomed open as it played “Happy Birthday” with everyone singing along.

The Classic Ending

And that still wasn’t the best part. After we spent some time sitting around cradling our food babies, Robbie encouraged us to come out to the main dining room to sing karaoke, which is a classic way to end any Filipino gathering.

So with the lyrics scrolling across a flat-screen TV and music blasting through the speakers, my friends and I put on one heck of a show while singing our hearts out like true Filipinos do. I probably worked off a majority of the calories I ate just by jumping around to "Dancing Queen" by ABBA.

Other remaining patrons in the restaurant (mostly Filipinos) laughed at our idiotic performances, though they slowly trickled out later–whether it's from being scared off or because it was getting late, I'll never know.

The owners of the restaurant gave us their blessing to stay past closing time, even joining in our songs and dancing along shamelessly. They went above and beyond to make me and my friends feel like we were family who needed to be well-fed, which is the very heart of Filipino culture.

Having a kamayan at Kuya Ian's was an excellent way to spend quality time with my friends and family on my birthday while enjoying great food in the meantime. And by the end of the day, my friends could be counted as honorary Filipinos, too.