Eat with Your Hand 101 / Kamayan Tutorial a la Marketman


I love to eat with my hand. Not “hands,” since most people, I have observed, only ever eat with one hand, not both hands. At any rate, despite my views on folks chewing with their mouths open, a habit which I personally believe is less natural than eating with your mouth closed (though I have no scientific data to prove it), I do love to occasionally eat a pinoy meal with my right hand, sans utensils. A huge percentage of the world’s population probably eat with their hand or hands, what with most of India doing so, many in the Middle East, Indonesia and The Philippines, Africa and North America and Europe as well. Have you ever seen anyone at McDonald’s eating their Big Macs with a fork and knife??? We almost certainly ate with our hands before Magellan arrived, though we probably already had the equivalent of a spoon. That’s why we call a fork “tenador” and a knife “cuchillo.” But in some dialects, we call a spoon a sandok, similar to the Malay word for spoon, sendok… Even with the Spaniards around, I suspect less than 10% of the population of the archipelago had access to cutlery.

But as with many, many brilliant things in the food sphere in the Philippines, the recipes, traditions, foods, etc. are disappearing faster than we would like. And I suspect, for a certain strata of society, including many who have access to a computer and hand2internet access and who read this blog on a regular basis, eating with one’s hands is becoming less and less common. Mrs. MM is one of those who is uncomfortable eating with her hand(s)…she would probably rather consume significantly less calories than battle with a warm adobo and rice mash, not to mention stringy achara on the side… The Kid still raises her eyebrows at the practice, but doesn’t eschew it altogether. I think I will reinstate monthly kamayan (hand eaten) meals at the beach… So, just in case you haven’t eaten with your hand(s) lately, or you are a new arrival in Manila and thought it silly to ask, here is the Hand Eating 101 tutorial a la Marketman.

First of all, eating with one’s hands in the province “Barrio Fiesta style” used to mean you were eating from on top of a piece of banana leaf (today, the majority are likely using a plastic plate). The seemingly perfect “plate,” the banana leaf is plentiful and cheap (particularly if you have banana trees growing in your backyard), a renewable resource, clean, hygienic, an attractive green color, smooth and non-porous. You can make the “plate” buffet or dinner size with a minimum of fuss; though round shapes require the use of scissors… Unfortunately, it is rarely hand painted, glazed and fired in a kiln, and if maltreated, tears easily into strips. Worse, it has no rim or lip, so sauces can run and drip onto your lap if you are not careful. Also, it is ineffective when you want to fling a “plate” across the room to make a crash and boom sound in a fit of frenzy a la the afternoon soap operas…

Next, the food served on these leaves is typically warm or tepid, not straight out of the kawali (pan) piping HOT. The reason for this is you can literally burn your fingertips on wickedly hot rice or oily food. Hmmm, perhaps this explains why many folks don’t mind hand3lukewarm or cold food in the Philippines. Soup is typically used to moisten one’s rice and some of the soup is added to the rice with the use of a spoon or by pouring a little bit out of a bowl directly onto the rice. This explains why soup is not typically a SEPARATE starter or course, but rather eaten simultaneously with one’s main course. With or without soup as the moisture regulator, eating with one’s hands is a balancing act of making sure each mouthful is the “right” mix of rice and viand, moisture and consistency. Perhaps this also explains our penchant for saucy foods, again as the moisture regulator when there is no soup on the menu. Eating on banana leaves in a restaurant but with stainless or pseudo silver utensils is really rather DOPEY, as knives and forks can shred the banana leaf. I consider this practice a MALL affectation and frankly, it is CHEESY, period. Use a plate rather than mixing the two styles of eating, harummphh. :)

Next, before eating, WASH your hands well. Ideally, you shouldn’t have terribly long finger nails either. Eating with one’s hand can actually be MORE hygienic than eating with estero water washed stainless utensils or if the fork and spoon you use hand4was handled by someone with dirty hands themselves. Take a small amount (spoonful equivalent) of rice and use your fingers to compact it into a mound on your plate. There are several views on whether you should mix viand with rice but I like to mash things together… then pick up the mound with all five fingers, bring your hand close to your mouth and use your thumb to push the mound of food into your mouth. Do not put your fingers INTO your mouth. Actually, with practice, you realize that the motion is rather natural, fluid and not messy at all. Practice in front of a mirror if you are self-conscious. Silly collegiala giggles and squeamishness at this point is immature. Get over it.

A lot of Pinoy food lends itself to being eaten by hand. Most grilled foods are easy to manage. So are fried fish, dried fishes, etc. But the practice works less well with other dishes from around the globe. Can you imagine eating Spaghetti Bolognese hand5with your hand? While eating a tira misu with one’s hand would be a challenge, a suman would be easy peasy. In some places like India, pieces of bread are used to wrap around foods or mop up soupy dishes like lentils. I asked several people in Manila if licking one’s fingers was appropriate at the end of the meal, and the general consensus was that it was not acceptable. Further, one must clean the banana leaf by herding all those stray grains of rice with one’s fingers into a final little pile and eating that too. I find there are several nice things about eating with one’s hand, you just seem that much closer to the food, you can feel and smell it before you taste it, you can regulate the contents of each mound with greater accuracy. It’s also nice not to hear the clash of steel on ceramic. Oh, and one final observation. I always wondered why so many people seem NOT to drink any water while they eat here. They save the water for last… I think I have finally figured that out. With their main eating hand all covered in rice and grease, holding a glass might be messy or difficult. Therefor they wait until after they wash their hands to then drink their water. Why they wouldn’t drink with their other hand is still a mystery… If you have any wise tips for the budding hand eater, please leave a comment…


31 Responses

  1. There are times I find it more enjoyable to eat with my hand especially if I’m eating seafoods like crabs, burong talangka, etc. (now, I’m hungry!!!)

    In indonesia, eating by hand is totally acceptable especially in fastfoods and local restaurants. In fact, even Mc Donalds does not provide spoon; you have to request for it. But usually, there is a sink outside the washroom, which is intended for washing hands before eating.

  2. eating with one’s hand does not seem complete without one leg propped up on the bench to support the “idle” left or right arm :-). Parang if you eat using the hand like you would with a spoon and fork, (seated normally, that is) it kinda looks and feels awkward. I also find it quite quiant often when I see Pinoys eating by hand with relish they’d often say to anyone who just happens to drop by “kain tayo!” It really doesn’t matter if the food is just enough for them!

  3. the reason why people don’t drink water during the meal is because it will make them feel full right away :)

  4. Hi MM! Growing up in Manila, “eating kamay” as my mom would call it, always meant mas masarap ang kain namin. I loved eating with my hand(s), although my dad was not always comfortable doing so. Now that I live in London and have been with my Indian partner for close to 7 years, 90% of my meals are eaten kamayan style. Of course soup, steak, pasta & some desserts still need cutlery. Lie you, I like mashing my food together, letting different textures & flavours blend in my mouth. Funny how a friend of mine said she ‘didn’t know’ how to eat with her hands — is that possible? isn’t eating with hands a natural instinct? you pick up the food and you put it in your mouth — HAND TO MOUTH — diba natural ‘yon? It’s different if you’re not comfortable…but ‘not knowing how’…? Anyway I’m proud that I have now mastered the art of “eating kamay”! =) Thank you for sharing this ‘how-to’. It’s a lovely re-fresher for those who need to re-learn this art.

  5. I’ve been “training” my boys to eat with their hands. I believe it’s integral to Filipino culture. I was taught by my dad at a very young age and I can say I’m quite adept at it. :-) I absolutely enjoy my food so much more when I eat with my hands. There’s nothing better than a perfect handful of rice, inihaw na baboy and tomatoes. Or a scoop of rice, perfectly formed with crabmeat dipped in a bit of vinegar.

  6. Eating by/with hand may be a natural instinct but eating by/with hand with grace is something to be learned in my opinion. I remember my mom trained us kids eating with our hand just the way you do. Plus it was mandatory that the other hand should stay at the lap unless we need to pick up/pass something and to never “pagpag” the hand when the rice sticks to the fingers/hand, to have no single grain of rice out of the plate means we’ve done very well. Whenever we eat kamayan style the glasses and serving spoons are placed at the left so we can hold it easily. I am actually in awe on how others eat with their hands, as if grabbing a massive mound and piling it all up to their throats and rice spilling out of the mouth like popping firecrackers while munching. LOL
    As for not drinking while eating, I think it is on ones mindset that if you drink often it makes you full too soon and inhibits you to eat more heartily. Filipinos generally love to eat. My Ilocano bro-in-law once joked around and asked us as how to distinguish an Ilocano eating with a bunch of fellow Filipinos or how a typical Ilocano eats…someone who drinks about or at least a glass of water before even taking a spoonful of rice. Lesser consumption of viand and rice. hehe

  7. Oh and by the way, my mom was also particular that our right elbows should never be raised (way too)above the table’s level as if “komang”. To me eating by hand(with grace)was harder than learning using the fork and knife. Nowadays we all appreciate kamayan whenever at the beach.

  8. MM, great post :) My kids love to eat with their hands, but it took some training to get them to use their fingertips only, not their entire hands. I sometimes allow it at home if the food is appropriate, but at the beach with all that seafood, grilled meats, fresh fruits and vegetables and banana leaves growing all over… It is almost a sin not to eat with your hands.

    Have you noticed yet how some pinoys, esp workers, have taken the kamayan style to a more hygienic level by using a clear plastic over their hands? Sadly, you lose a bit of the tactile experience, but at least you dont have to worry about washing your hands after or that lingering adobo smell under your fingertips.

    Like safe sex, the plastic sacrifices some of the pleasure for an all over less messy experience :D

  9. I am all for eating with my hands! And I can make my own spoon with a strip of coconut palm or banana leaf, if need be.

    It’s such a handy thing to learn. In Bali, many meals are of the “single banana leaf parcel” type called bungkus, and it’s assumed that you’ll use your hands. However, one time I ordered some fried noodles fresh from the wok, and they were still really hot to the touch. My friends suggested that I use a strip of banana leaf as a spoon. It’s a bit difficult to maneuver a banana leaf spoon with hot stir-fried noodles, but it was sure a lot of fun and the noodles were very delicious!

  10. “It’s such a handy thing to learn” – ha ha, almost missed the really bad pun there…

  11. If eating with our bare hands is not a practice limited to Filipinos, is the tendency to use soup spoon to slice food to bite-size pieces exclusively ours alone?

  12. I grew up in a westernized household, my mom is American and considered eating with my hands “dirty.” Luckily, I had a really cool Yaya who would teach me the art in the dirty kitchen! A fitting place for such a lesson.

    I realize too that it is because of this tradition that Pinoys hardly ever have knives on the table. The food is already cut to bite-size or easily cut apart.

  13. During fiesta or any special celebration, eating with the hands along with the rest of the barangay is custom. I think they call this “budol-budol”.

  14. hehe, kongkong622, it’s called “boodle” as in “boodle fight”. TAs far as I know, the military use this term for a shared feast where whole banana leaves are set out on a looooong table and food is placed in the middle. Soldiers line up on both sides of the table and eat kamayan style. Budol-budol refers to a modus operandi of a gang that tells househelp that their bosses are in hospital and ask them to wrap up whatever cash and jewelry are in the house and bring it to a meeting place supposedly for the medical expenses of their bosses.

    MM, you have just redeemed yourself from your chew-with -your-mouth-closed post by this one advocating kamayan!!! I myself learned the proper kamayan way from my Ilonggo father. May tanong lang ako: how does one get more food or rice? Using the right (eating) hand will grease up the serving spoons! :0!

  15. CecileJ, how to get more food? With your eating hand, of course! As long as you don’t poke around before settling on the cut of your choice; now THAT really gets to me, treating food like ukay-ukay, hehe…

  16. I agree that licking one’s fingers after a “kamayan” meal is unacceptable. Except maybe if you’re at KFC.

  17. i remember my ilocano grandparents have specially made coco shell bowls filled with water -a bowl set to the right of each diner – to wash the eating hand before getting more food or to wash the eating hand when it becomes too messy like rice and food bits sticking to the fingers. it is also a no-no to pag-pag or spread your fingers too wide as if to exercise them for your next mound of food.

  18. i love eating with my hand especially if the viand is prito/nilaga/inihaw na talong with steaming rice, sliced tomatoes with sliced onions, juice of several calamansi, some minced ginger and fish paste(ginisang bagoong).. i have started teaching my two kids, 10y/o and 4y/o respectively to eat with their hand especially if the viand calls for it.. they both are adept in using the spoon, fork and knife but still learning to use their hand.. hehehe!!

    this post made me remember the binalot stalls near the grocery section of most malls and i see them serving the food wrapped in banana leaf with a spoon with tines at the end .. i think they call it a “spork”…(spoon + fork)

  19. I find the Kamayan eating practices of the Pinoy more refined. Years back I lived in the Middle East and sat down with some Arab friends for a meal. Sorry to say, but no offense to them,I find the way they eat with their hands oddly disconcerting and messy. Its a cultural thing I had to live with, despite the fact I enjoy eating Arabic food very much.

  20. Raneli:

    It’s funny you should mention that – the divide between fingertip and whole-hand usage is found within India. The northern states tend to eat like Kamayan style, while the southern states tend to use the whole hand while eating. It may have to do something with the level of inherent cohesiveness of the staple food as well. In the north, one eats not only rice, but the grilled bread naan (and other varieties) as well. On the other hand, in the south people mainly eat rice that is quite separated (i.e. non-sticky) in nature. It would be rather impractical to use only the fingertips with this rice, especially if it is accompanied by various curries and dhal.

  21. We have a bahay kubo at the rear of our house. Whenever we eat at the bahay kubo we are always defaulted to eat with our hands. I am telling you the foods taste very different from the set up we have at the house with the china and silverware. As with anything manners should always be in place. Our sandok which serves as our buffet spoons are made out of coconut shells secured with yantok at the wooden handle. The humble banana leaves bring up the whole set up in a different atmosphere very inviting especially adobo, asado, hilabos na hapos with chopped mangoes, tomatoes, onion and sauteed bagoong spread out on banana leaves and grilled bangus with eggplant salad.

  22. i love eating with my hands. but as much as possible I try to avoid it because I tend to eat more with my hands, mas masarap kumain pag naka-kamay!

    here in Cebu, you could see locals eating in fastfoods with plastics in their hands, having “puso” and “ngoyong” or even “lechon”. I think its a common practice here in the Phils.

  23. I remember growing up, every summer my uncle (who’s in a much better place now) would take us – the kids and his family out for a swim for a day…Since they don’t have a car, we take the jeepney to antipolo and just continue on with a rented tricycle ride to the resort…we have bbq’s, itlog na maalat and more and our meal will not be complete without banana leaves and ofcourse we would eat with our hand! It was so much and fun and always memorable each yr. Fast forward to todays date, although our houselhold still practices eating with our hand depending on our “ulam”, just minus the banana leaves, for some reason, it gives me so much pleasure and it’s much more enjoyable to eat with your hand during camping or spending a weekend in the cottage! :)

  24. Eating with your hands is the “best” specially with seafood. One tip i can tell you is how to get rid of that smelly hands if you eat Crabs with your hands and you’re dipping them in vinegar with lots of garlic. When washing your hands, use a stainless steel spoon or fork, by continuously rubbing the steel with the hands you used while the water is flowing over your hands.

  25. eating with your hands is disastrous for any dieter. especially when you eat with all your family and friends around you. it feels like a fiesta and the kwentuhan and laughter almost never stops. =)

    my dad always asks for a tabo with water to wash his hands after eating. Hinawan is what he calls it.

  26. this topic is my pandora’s box. you have let my evils out mm. definitely way up there on my list of lists is eating with my hands. it’s just so primal in a way that it heightens the dining experience all the more. the flavors take on a lifeform.

    i normally gravitate towards the patio or the outdoors when i decide to eat ‘kamay’. the food – as mentioned repeatedly above: shrimp, crabs, catfish, tuna, pork.. (shudder… shudder…), chicken… grilled anything really, and preferably with the bones still on that ‘grilled anything’. either blackened beyond identification or still bloody red, it’s all fine. plus, you rip the meat apart, hehehe this part i like best, because you have no knife and fork, you rip it. rip it good. my cro-magnon life flashes before my eyes…

    fish heads. i attack a fish head with my hands, and disassemble the skull to reveal the precious cheeks, eyes, jaw meat and puny brains. leaving the skull parts laid neatly on my plate like an airplane hobby set. shrimp heads are also cool although simple pecause you just sort of pop up the hood and suck the orange goo for brains.

    and a critical part of eating ‘kamay’ is the holy water of this event.–> the sawsawan. no kamayan should be without one. this is my weakness, my pornography. believe me you (ü), a ceremony of mine after eating is to sip the sawsawan from that little mongkok, regarless of the dirtied state it is in, with the bits of meat, fishbones, shrimp moustache, onion, chili, regardless of the resulting liquid color from the combined vinegar, soy sauce, patis, calamansi, sweat from my forehead, or even with the kaleidoscope formed on the surface by all that floating black-charcoal-carbon-stuff, even if there have been more than a dozen hands that have dipped their fingers in it along with the ‘grilled anything’ (provided i know these people)… i will still sip the sawsawan from that little mongkok….

  27. you can also get rid of the seafod smells by squeezing the juice of a fresh kalamansi or putting a small amount of white vinegar on your hands or fingertips before soaping them when you wash after the meal.

  28. Eating kamayan style always bring me back to the days when my mom’s side of the family would go to a nearby batis in Bicol and eat there. We’d bring our inihaw na tilapia, baboy, manggang hilaw with tomatoes and bagoong and prawns and just spread everything on those banana leaves. Oh, and of course we never forget our bottles of San Miguel beer and water. They were pretty liberal with the underage drinking (hello, they would buy beer for me and my other 13 year old cousins hehe)and if the beer was slighly warm, we’d lodge em between some big rocks submerged in the batis til they were cooler… Ahh good times…

  29. This just shows how versatile filipino’s are. Sure it looks unethical in some ways but your statistics are spot on. We didn’t have spoon and forks early on, and this is just part of our History and Culture regardless of its visuals. Besides meals are enjoyed better when eating by hand. well of course with your Banana leaf setting, the Beach while munching on some fresh Seafood and Filipino Fiesta meals Priceless!!

  30. Me, my brother and a friend of mine had formed this habit of eating lunch on a banana leaf buffet style, just like in the olden days, every other day. We eat standing up with one foot propped on a low chair or anywhere else. its fun and its a very special feeling when we eat like this. basically its more enjoyable.

    about the water drinking part, my personal reason is that i dont want to wash away the taste of the food, i love savouring it for as long as i can. :)

    PS i love this article.



Subscribe To Updates

No spam, only notifications about new blog posts.