Hands on Eating: Gene Gonzalez tells us all about Filipino 'Kamayan'

We caught up with Rassa chef Gene Gonzalez to find out all about Kamayan, the FIlipino finger food feast served on banana leaves.
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Johnny Garmeson
Jun 1
4 mins
Jun 1
4 mins

In Tagalog, the official language of the Philippines, the term Kamayan is used to mean ‘by hand’, but this only tells half the story. 

For Filipinos around the world, Kamayan feasts (sometimes referred to as Boodle Fights) are a symbol of family, history, and festivity. Food is served on banana leaves, without cutlery or crockery, and everyone eats together with their hands.

Kamayan eating has brought Filipinos together for thousands of years, and is practiced to this day as a way of paying tribute to the heritage of their culture.

Since traditions are celebrated differently across the world and even within the Philippines, we reached out to Rassa chef Gene Gonzalez to ask him what Kamayan means to him. Chef Gene is best known for his amazing food, cookbooks, and award-winning restaurants throughout the Philippines, and while his restaurants have always connected people with Filipino culture, nothing gets more intimate than a Kamayan feast.

“Eating with the hands grounds you with the food and makes one intimate with the ingredients,” says Gene. “Now you will see that many western restaurants that feature tasting menus encourage their diners to pick the tasting courses now with their hands like canapés.”

Although the tradition had been around for centuries, Kamayan disappeared among city dwellers and the Filipino intelligentsia during the Spanish and American colonization, as well as British occupation, up to post WW2. This was as western etiquette deemed it ‘uncivilized’ to eat with your hands. 

“A consciousness and resurgence of Kamayan started in the mid-seventies when Ray Bautista and Vic Vic Villavicencio opened an elegantly interiorised restaurant where one can indulge in this form of feasting,” says Gene. While it wasn’t a common occurrence, Kamayan soon became acceptable again and slowly made its way back into Filipino family traditions.

As is the case with many other Filipinos, Kamayan evokes joyful memories of youth for Gene. His love for food and cooking started ever since he could stand on a stool in his grandmother’s kitchen, watching chefs, learning about the ingredients and techniques that surrounded him. 

“Cooking was defined as food ‘In The Big House,’ which was sampled by all the bigwigs who came to visit my grandmother,” says Gene. “The food ‘outside the big house’ was food that sustained the staff who kept this house in all its stately ways with visitors marveling at preparations made by our hot kitchen cooks and bakers.” 

Despite the strict western etiquette and education that he was taught, Gene developed a fond relationship with the staff, who taught and inspired him with the vibrancy of traditional Filipino cuisine. 

“Their [staff’s] country cooking and interpretations of Haute cooking were on par with the cooking ‘inside the big house’. These were delicious interpretations of little known foraged vegetables, offal, game fish and birds, and inexpensive cuts of meat and seafood that were so wonderfully cooked with a provincial flair.”

“That lower house kitchen was my comfort zone,” Gene adds. “My clandestine bouts of eating with staff in true Gamatan [Kamayan] fashion.”

The controlled chaos of Kamayan is usually arranged across massive banana leaves, where you can find Lechon pork barbecues, Pancit noodles, fish, Sinangag rice, stir-fried vegetables, and other fried foods. 

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For Gene’s household, Kamayan consists of eating umami-rich food and dips such as fried fish and Patis (fermented fish sauce) or Bagoong (krill paste), indulging in charcoal-grilled food, or slathering one’s rice with gravy from braised food. All these dishes are arranged closely together, allowing for the smells and flavours to merge pleasantly.

As a chef, Gene has always been fascinated by how the wild assortment maintains the undivided intimacy between the eater and the ingredients. “Textures, degrees of [texture], color, visual impact are added to a tactile sensory dimension and also creates a closer distance to one’s olfactory organs,” Gene says.

“A tactile sensory addition and closer olfactory distance are created in the manner of eating with hands,” he adds. “This is why many cultures who eat with their hands like Filipinos, Malays, or Indians claim that people eat more when they use their hands. From personal experience, this is very true!”

Tourists and expatriates rave about how fun and interactive the Kamayan experience is. Gene asserts that it is therefore even more important to properly explain and demonstrate the irreplaceable role Kamayan has in Filipino culture, and continue the tradition that has been practiced for generations.

“Eating with our hands has been instinctively ingrained with Filipinos,” Gene says. “Fun times of eating with family and friends for special occasions and fraternizing unmasks our eating personas and lets us find comfort and enjoyment with eating Filipino food with our hands.”

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