Metro Vancouver's Filipino community connects to roots with boodle fights

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      Eating with one’s hands is common among many peoples across the world. Even in the West, not all foods are eaten with a knife and fork. Think pizza, chicken wings, and hamburgers, to mention a few. During the past few years, local Filipino restaurants have taken the concept of eating without utensils to another level through the “boodle fight”.

      Derived from a military style of eating in the Philippines, where everyone eats the same food together regardless of rank, the boodle fight eschews not only cutlery but plates and serving platters as well. Boodle, or enough food to feed a small army, is piled on tables covered with banana leaves. After everyone has washed their hands, the fight is on until the grub runs out.

      At both Kulinarya Filipino Eatery and Grandt Kitchen, this dining experience is also known as kamayan (a Tagalog word meaning “eating with the hands”).

      Kulinarya opened its first location in Coquitlam in 2009, and it started offering kamayan-style dining at 114 –2922 Glen Drive in 2013. According to the establishment’s co-owner Rosette Samaniego, the communal hand-to-mouth dining style caught on among families and young people of various backgrounds through word of mouth and social media. “We had a feeling that because it’s different, it will be well received,” Samaniego told the Georgia Straight in an interview.

      When Kulinarya opened its second location in Vancouver, at 1134 Commercial Drive, last December, there were no firm plans to introduce kamayan. However, the restaurant kept getting inquiries from people asking if they could have a boodle fight so they wouldn’t have to drive out to Coquitlam.  According to Samaniego, kamayan receipts account for about 40 percent of the revenue of Kulinarya in Vancouver.

      Last Friday, Samaniego and staff started preparing a long table for a 7 p.m. kamayan reservation for seven adults and two kids half an hour in advance.

      The table was first topped with white paper; over that, banana leaves moistened with edible oil were carefully layered. Next, mounds of rice were placed at the centre of the table, rising like snowy peaks. Then came a succession of dishes heaped on and around the staple food, like a parade of colours and flavours.

      First was kare-kare (beef and vegetables simmered in peanut sauce). Second came pakbet (Asian vegetables with shrimp paste). Next were lumpia (spring rolls), followed by steamed pechay (Filipino bok choy). Then fried eggplant, longanisa (sausage similar to chorizo), and fried plantains. Next in line was crispy pata (pork leg boiled and fried until the skin becomes crunchy). Then adobo (chicken and pork cooked with soy sauce and vinegar). Finally, grilled and stuffed pusit (squid filled with tomato and onion) was followed by fried kamote (sweet potatoes).

      Kulinarya offers a kamayan experience that includes dishes like kare-kare (beef and veggies simmered in peanut sauce) and adobo (chicken and pork cooked with soy sauce and vinegar).
      Kulinarya Filipino Eatery

      To garnish the spread, lemon slices and salsa were placed in different spots. For dips, vinegar and chili sauce came in small plastic cups. Kulinarya clients can also customize their kamayan fare with a selection of meats, seafood, and vegetables.

      Before Spanish colonization began in the 16th century, people in the Asian archipelago now known as the Philippines ate with their hands, a practice that was looked down upon by the Europeans. The colonizers introduced eating with utensils, and although their new subjects adopted this style, eating with one’s hands did not die. It became a guilty pleasure for many and was passed down through generations like a collective memory.

      Perhaps many Filipinos, to this day, eat with their hands in the privacy of their homes and company of close friends as an unconscious act of defiance against foreign subjugation.

      Gian Karla Limcangco, a Vancouver foodie and independent journalist originally from Manila, noted that young Filipinos in their native land as well as overseas are eager to reconnect with their precolonial heritage, and kamayan is one way of tapping into that legacy. “It’s going back to our roots,” Limcangco told the Straight by phone. According to Limcangco, kamayan is not just about the food; it’s also about sharing and community.

      Grandt Kitchen introduced the boodle fight in 2016, a year after the opening of its Surrey location at 12297 Industrial Road. Rina Fajardo-Molenderas, a co-owner of the restaurant, related that the place is always fully booked on weekends for the kamayan experience, by Filipino as well as non-Filipino customers. “It’s like a fellowship,” Fajardo-Molenderas told the Straight in a phone interview.

      Although diners all do the same thing, eat, they also exchange stories and laughter, which makes the experience a fun gathering, according to Fajardo-Molenderas.

      For those who don’t want to eat with their hands in public, Grandt Kitchen offers boodle to go, with the food in a bilao (traditionally used as a rice-winnowing tray) and banana leaves that they can set on the table at home.