Kamayan by Cinelle Barnes

We have banana leaves and we have hands.

We eat with them, these forest-green blades and ten digits. We take the time to wrap our rice, wrap our fish, wrap our yellows, greens and reds, in steamy pockets made of folded foliage.

My Aunt Agnes, the best of all the good cooks in the clan, makes sticky rice doused in tempting coconut cream. She ladles the porridge from a clay pot to a crisp spot on the leaf that will soon be moist with sweetness. She folds up the leaf's hands with her hands into a neat package – a present – which she then places in a bamboo steamer boiling over a fire.

She offers the same devotion to the fish in tomato-and-onion ragout, bundling it whole with eyes, backbone and tail. In the Philippines, we don't waste parts of our food – whether plant, mammal or aquatic. We find use for everything, even merely for packaging.

We let our food cook. We wait. We anticipate the steam, first to whisper to us through the seams, then to rupture through, signaling the food is ready.

Aunt Agnes takes the food from the bamboo steamer to the table. Then we wash our hands, readying them for the rite of Kamayan – the rite of scooping up rice and viand with the first four fingers, and pushing them into our mouths with our thumbs. We keep repeating until we have rhythm. We build and feel the communal spirit. Our arms bend at the elbow and lift off the table on the same beat. We become native, to our land and to each other. With every bite, we offer peace, as if our spirits shake each other's hands. We have no utensils, not today, not in these islands.

Cinelle Barnes

Cinelle Barnes is a non-fiction writer and creative entrepreneur from Manila, Philippines. Her focus is memoir and personal essays on growing up in Southeast Asia, and on being a mother and immigrant in America. Along with her husband, daughter, and pet Maltese, they consider Charleston, SC and NYC home. She attends the MFA program at Converse College.