It’s a sight rarely seen in Western cultures:
A 12-foot-long table, covered in banana leaves on which a dozen or more Filipino specialties were carefully arranged. A wide river of white garlic rice ran down the center, the banks created by vibrant fruits, meats, salads, and other accompaniments. Bowls of broth and vegetables sat in front of each diner seated at the table.
A few guests experienced in the traditional Filipino style of eating called Kamayan, which is Tagalog for “by hand,” showed the rest how to use their hands to scoop food toward themselves and then bring it to their mouths, all without utensils or plates.
Gloves were offered, but no one took them, to the surprise of the organizers. While many of the guests were friends, some knew no one at the table. But attempting, with varying success, to convey small grains of rice to one’s mouth by hand has a way of breaking down potential barriers and opening up conversation.
Nikki Evangelista, the owner of the new Filipino pop-up Takam that hosted its first full dinner on Sept. 11 at Junto Coffee, says that’s exactly what’s supposed to happen.
“It’s such a great way to meet new people,” she says. “ It makes it easier to connect if you’re all doing something uncomfortable.”
“Uncomfortable” is merely relative to the cultural norms. In the Philippines, where Evangelista lived until she was 13, Kamayan was a normal way of dining in groups or for celebrations. In the U.S., dining without utensils works for certain types of fast food and the like, but at a more formal, sit-down dinner, it simply wouldn’t fly.
Now, through Takam, Evangelista, 21, hopes to introduce more of the Greenville community to her dining culture that is starting to gain more national attention. She says when her family needs their Filipino cuisine fix, they often go to Atlanta, where there are several Filipino restaurants along with a successful Kamayan pop-up. Eventually, a Greenville-area brick-and-mortar is the goal for Takam, she says, but for now, a monthly pop-up will begin the introduction process.
Evangelista grew up washing the dishes while her mother and grandmother cooked in their small kitchen. After her family moved to the Simpsonville area, the larger American home kitchen allowed her to join in the cooking process, and that’s when her real interest began. She learned to cook traditional Filipino cuisine and also branched out to French, Italian, and American.
After two years majoring in art at Greenville Technical College and an internship with an interior design studio, Evangelista turned her focus to a void she saw in the local international cuisine offerings.
“I was just talking with my family — there’s no Filipino food here,” she says.
They urged her to start with a pop-up, which she did in July with sweets and pastries, using traditional Filipino flavors in American-style desserts to make it more accessible.
Filipino cuisine itself is a fusion of influences from various Asian and Latin countries, and the U.S., so while the flavors and ingredients are used in a distinctly Filipino way, there are similarities to cuisines with which Americans are likely very familiar.
For instance, one of the appetizers Evangelista served at the Kamayan dinner was pimento cheese. Until she moved to the U.S., she had no idea it wasn’t a Filipino specialty because it is such a staple packed in school lunches in small jars.
Other dishes — chicken adobo (chicken braised in a soy sauce base), hipon (whole shrimp with garlic), lumpia (spring rolls), pancit (rice noodles), mango salad (salsa), and pork longganisa (sausage on a stick), all draw from various other international culinary influences that are more widely represented in the U.S.
Some items were less familiar but not off-putting. Evangelista’s favorite dish of the night was the sinigang soup, which is a sour broth with vegetables and tamarind. She admitted to toning down the sour this time for the American palates but hopes to be able to ramp it back up at future dinners. Ube, a purple sweet potato, is used to color and as a base for many Filipino items. Rambutan, the spiny magenta fruit, and calamansi, tiny green tart citrus fruits, were scattered around the table to be eaten with other items or as an intermezzo.
“I wanted to do something different you can’t find here,” she says.
Follow Takam on Instagram at @takamgvl for future pop-up announcements.