If you attend one of Yana Gilbuena’s dinners, don’t bother asking for utensils. Learn about kamayan and how eating with your hands is crucial to Filipino culture—and get recipes for hosting your own kamayan at home.

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A top view of a Filipino Feast
Credit: Jenny Huang

The first—and only—time one of Yana Gilbuena's guests asked for a fork and knife, it didn't sit well with the chef. She had just given her spiel about the Filipino tradition of eating only with your hands to 80 pop-up diners eagerly awaiting the forthcoming feast at a church in Washington, D.C. But in the kitchen, news that a man was insisting on utensils put an abrupt halt to her meal preparations. She would go speak to him personally.

In 2014, the Filipino-born Gilbuena made it her mission to spread the gospel of her native food—hosting kamayan-style pop-up feasts in all 50 states, plus the nation's capital. Kamayan, or the act of eating with your hands, is the Filipino way of dining communally without plates or utensils. Instead, mounds of rice, sawsawan (dipping sauces), atchara (Filipino pickles) and multiple main dishes—from salads to grilled meats, veggies or fish—are spread across banana leaves on the table. "It was my way to challenge the constructs of Western definitions of dining," Gilbuena says. "Kamayan decolonizes Filipino food: it embraces what we were made to feel ashamed of [eating with our hands], reclaims the heritage we were made to shun for Western ideals, and goes back to our roots."

For Gilbuena, who moved to the U.S. from the Philippines in 2004, cooking has always been about introducing as many people as possible to her culture. "Most of the time, when people feature Filipino food, it's in these metropolitan cities: New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco," she says. "Well, what about the folks in Kentucky? Or Maine? Do they have to travel to New York just to get a taste? I said, f--k it. I'll just go bring it to them!"

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But she also considers her food to be an act of resistance and rebellion. When Spain colonized the Philippines in 1565, its influence settled over the islands like a ton of bricks. And although the country gained its independence in 1898, the rubble still remains today, evident in everything from the religion and culture to the food. So Gilbuena makes a point to serve dishes that are as precolonial or Indigenous-inspired as possible.

Take Chicken Inasal, for example. This marinated chicken dish hails from Negros (the island Gilbuena was born on) and stars ingredients like calamansi—a Filipino citrus fruit—and oil infused with annatto seeds, which come from native trees. One Spanish-influenced dish she makes an exception for? Flan. "I have a very fond memory of flan, because my grandmother used to make me eat my vegetables by hiding them in it!" Gilbuena laughs.

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Back to that D.C. pop-up. Gilbuena recalls telling the stubborn diner that he could eat with his hands—or he could leave and she'd refund his money. (He chose the former.) "It was funny because he was Filipino!" Gilbuena exclaims. "I was like, 'Dude, that colonial mentality is buried in there really deep!'" When Gilbuena's U.S. tour ended, she barely caught her breath before bringing her pop-ups to cities across Canada, then Colombia, Mexico, Australia and, most recently in 2019, to Europe. Her travels are on pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the recipes included here will help you create a kamayan feast at home—no forks allowed.

How to Set Up a Kamayan-Style Meal

  1. Cover your table with butcher paper or newspaper to protect it, then top with banana leaves (look for them at Asian and Latin markets). Start at the outer edges of the table and work your way toward the center, making sure to lay them down with the shiny, ridged side up. Trim any overhanging banana leaves so the edges are flush with the table.
  2. Shape the rice along the middle of the table or put scoops of rice in the center.
  3. Arrange dishes on and in between the rice. Things you can easily pick up—like Chicken Inasal and Ensaladang Ubod— can go on top of and next to the rice. Others can be contained in a variety of ways. Scoop salads into hollowed-out pineapple halves, coconut cups or large, sturdy leaves like cabbage; you can also create "dams" for them with various fruits and vegetables.
  4. This should go without saying, but have your guests wash their hands before coming to the table. Folks should serve themselves with their nondominant hand and eat with their dominant hand.
  5. If you want to take extra COVID precautions, use the banana leaves like place mats and create individual kamayan-style spreads.
  6. To eat, use a technique that Gilbuena calls "Pick, Pack and Push": "Pick" up some rice and veggies or meat, "pack" it into a bite-size ball with your fingers and then use your thumb to "push" it in your mouth.

Key Ingredients to a Kamayan-Style Meal

Atsuete oil: Also called annatto or achiote oil, this red oil adds color and nutty flavor to recipes. To make your own, steep 2 Tbsp. annatto seeds in 1/4 cup hot canola or coconut oil for 30 minutes. Strain and discard the seeds. 

Calamansi juice: A tart and floral relative of the kumquat, calamansi is the predominant citrus used in Filipino cooking. Look for the juice bottled or frozen. Lime or lemon juice can be substituted. (Try calamansi in Bistek Tagalog).

Coconut cream: Thicker and richer than coconut milk, coconut cream is the solid part that rises to the top of canned coconut milk. It's also sold separately. Skip anything labeled cream of coconut, which is sweetened and used to make things like cocktails.

Coconut vinegar: Made from the nectar of flowers from the coconut tree, this mild vinegar has a slightly sweet, coconutty aftertaste. It's a staple throughout Southeast Asia and parts of India. Use it in marinades and dressings or to make pickled vegetables. 

Fish sauce: This is the ultimate umami sauce. Gilbuena recommends seeking out one made with just anchovy, salt and water for the best flavor. 

Ginisang bagoong: This fermented seafood paste, part of a family of Filipino secret-weapon condiments, gets its brown hue from sautéed garlic and onion. You can use fish sauce instead for a similar vibe. 

Tamarind: Filipinos' go-to souring agent is tamarind. This tropical tree produces a sour-sweet fruit in a brown pod, with edible pulp. It's often sold in concentrate or pulp form. You can make your own "concentrate" by mixing 1/4 cup pulp and 1 cup hot water in a medium bowl. Let stand for 20 minutes. Break up the paste and mix it with the water with a fork. Pass the mixture through a fine sieve set over a bowl, pressing against the solids and scraping the underside of it to collect as much of the pulp as possible. Discard solids.

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Follow Yana Gilbuena on Instagram @saloseries to learn more about Filipino cooking and get information about upcoming events.

For more on Filipino cuisine, read this essay (with recipe) about tinola, by Natalia B. Roxas.

This article originally appeared in EatingWell Magazine, July/August 2021.