Elbows up: Why kamayan champions Filipino culinary traditions

Laid out on banana leaves, the foods found in a kamayan feast often tell stories unique to the people who prepared them.

Imagine the salty sea air blowing against your face. The mellow hues of the sunset cascade down from the horizon as you snuggle your toes between the warm sand. Crashing waves harmonize with the wind to tie the experience in a neat bow. Everything feels serene. But the calmness vanishes when peculiar scents come your way.

Instead of the briny breeze, the complex aromas of various dishes, rice, and fruits excite your palate. Out in the distance, your loved ones are laying the table with banana leaves, then placing various dishes on top—interpolating their preparation with laughter. You come closer and discover a majestic spread that tickles the senses: the humble Filipino boodle fight.

The modern iteration of this spread has its roots in the American Commonwealth, as Everybody was boodle fighting: military histories, culinary tourism, and diasporic dining by Daniel Bender and Adrian De Leon pinpoints. Military personnel brought various viands and piled them on banana leaves, where people helped themselves to the feast. But chef and Philippine Culinary Heritage Founder Jam Melchor clarifies that the proper term used should be “kamayan”. “Kamayan is very Filipino; boodle fight is just a term [popularized in] our generation,” he claims. But whether one calls it kamayan or boodle fight, this feast is always meant for groups to chow down together as one.

Banquet of high spirits

In such a bountiful feast, its contents can only be expressed as a lay of the Philippine land. There are always staple favorites found at every spread. For Joanne Muego (III, BECED), hers include chicken inasal, grilled liempo, lumpiang shanghai, and the occasional lechon. She describes her experience of eating this feast surrounded by familiar and fresh faces alike during island hopping trips, “Usually, we’re together with some foreigners so we got to see what they think of our culture.”

While Muego wants to see a lot of dishes in this feast, Melchor expresses that the dishes found in kamayan are often reflections of the local region’s ingredients and specialities. “For example, I’m from Pampanga. So most probably, lahat ng pwede mong i-harvest sa isang farm, mga pang-ihaw na meat,” he remarks. Meanwhile, kamayan spreads that are prepared in coastal areas usually contain more seafood.

(All that you can harvest from a farm is meat to be grilled.)

No matter if you’re with friends, family, or complete strangers—or unsure about what food is being served—everyone sits shoulder to shoulder to eat the same meal. “Hindi pwedeng [nahihiya-hiya] ka dun kasi magugutom ka ‘pag mahina ka kumain,” chef and entrepreneur Jethro Onanad shares, fondly reminiscing how his friends would fight over grilled meats in the spread.

(You can’t be shy because you’ll starve if you eat timidly.)

Unspoken connection

Even though kamayan has become a tradition for everyone to enjoy, Melchor feels that social media has misrepresented the boodle fight as a meal that merely suits the affluent. Because of its grand and aesthetically pleasing presentation in food blogs and restaurant marketing, some may perceive the meal’s typical consumers are only those who can afford it.

But on the contrary, “When an ordinary family sets up a kamayan, they’ll just have a pot or Tupperwares.

That’s where they’ll get their food,” Melchor relays in Filipino, noting kamayan’s simplicity. 

Regardless of class, eating with your hands is a must. All three relay that easing into our meal with bare hands is deep-rooted in the Filipino identity. This communal way of dining is imprinted in our culture; bonding and connecting with each other is a part of who we are as Filipinos. Table manners and proper posture may be out the window, but you can’t replicate that personal connection you have with those beside you anywhere else.

Ang boodle fight ay pang-bonding; nagkakabiruan kayo habang kumakain, tapos kailangan din malakas ka kumain [para mag-enjoy ka],” Onanad says. 

(A boodle fight is for bonding; you get to tease each other while eating and you must have a big appetite for it so you can enjoy.)

Flavors of life

Sadly, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the kamayan eating experience. “During the pandemic, matatakot kang magkamayan because it might cause [an outbreak among those present],” Melchor explains. People have opted for alternative ways to eat this feast; however, Muego attests, “There are instances where [people] use plastic gloves or utensils…but it still takes away a lot of the experience.“

(You will be afraid to eat with your hands…)

Similarly, Onanad divulges that even prior to the pandemic, kamayan wasn’t on top of his list when it came to social gatherings simply because of personal hygiene preferences. He adds, “Syempre, hindi ko alam kung may sakit ang kasama ko, ‘di ba? Edi magkakasakit ka rin.”

(Obviously, I don’t know if the people I’m with are sick, right? Then most likely you’ll also get sick.)

Despite precautionary measures he had set for himself, he does admit that indelibly good memories always spring out of the boodle fight experiences with his family and friends. However, Melchor furthers that while kamayan will contain precious memories with loved ones, solo serving meals are still ultimately safer at this time, even with relaxed outdoor protocols.

There’s no wrong answer as to how one prefers to present their kamayan feasts, especially when introducing it to those who are foreign to this tradition. “Ang [kamayan ay]…nagiging magandang representasyon [ng food culture natin] because it creates camaraderie, which is part ng kulturang [Pilipino],” he finishes.

(Kamayan becomes a good representation of our food culture because it creates camaraderie, which is a part of Filipino culture.)

Ultimately, what can be found beyond the banana leaves is a delicious stamp of Filipino cuisine. For Muego, “It gives us a chance to showcase Filipino delicacies and dishes,” especially if those viands represent a specific region’s culture. The boodle fight serves as the perfect vessel to marry all the best things about Philippine culture. Comprising the stellar combination of comfort food and community, this tradition has withstood the test of time, and is sure to never become lost to the future generations.

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