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Eating Kamayan - Philippines Travel Guide
The modern Filipino today is quite well-versed in using different eating utensils, such as the spoon, fork, and small knife (as influenced by Western cultures) and the chopsticks (as influenced by some Asians like the Chinese and the Japanese). But many Filipinos, like their Asian brothers, the Malays and Indians, like to eat their food using their hands. Unlike the Indians who have a rule about using the right hand to hold the food, a Filipino may use the left especially if he is left-handed.
The early Filipino ancestors actually used banana leaves as plates. This choice is not because bananas are abundant in the country. But because the leaves of bananas add aroma to the food. In some households, a cleaned and trimmed banana leaf is inserted between the pot and its cover while the rice or the viand is being cooked. In restaurants that claim to serve Filipino dishes, the food is served on fresh banana leaves. And when food is served in leaves, the way to eat is to use your hands.
Using your hands to eat is called “kamayan”. Kamayan means “Using the hands”. If you haven’t done it before, learning it would be easier than learning how to use chopsticks (in my opinion, of course). What you actually do is to gather together on one part of the plate the food that you will want to eat in one serving bite. That is, you collect some rice, some viand (fish is the usual viand or “ulam”) and, using your fingers, mesh them gently to form a small ball. This ball of food need not be perfectly round. But it should hold together during the time it takes you to carry it towards your mouth. At the entrance of your mouth, you will use your thumb to push the food inside.
Thus, another thing to consider in meshing a food ball is its size. The size should fit your open mouth. You don’t want a big food ball to dunk into your poor mouth. Choking would be inconvenient and, chances are, only a few locals knew the Heimlich maneuver.
Using the hands is a convenient way of eating especially with certain kinds of food such as roasted or fried chicken, “lechon” (roasted pig), and “inihaw na bangus” (grilled milkfish). But there are other foods that cannot be eaten easily when you’re only using your hands, such as “pancit canton”, a food adapted from the Chinese and it uses a pasta-like material garnished with vegetables and some meat.
If you want to “get native” with the locals, consider using your hands as you eat. Just don’t forget to wash your hands before and after eating. Because, before and after eating, you may have done the other connotation of “kamayan”, that is to “shake hands” with friends and new acquaintances.