Chef/restaurateur Billy Dec makes frequent appearances on the national morning news shows cooking upscale Asian dishes or mixing up crafty cocktails from the menus at one of his several restaurants and bars in Chicago and Nashville. He manages locations of his flagship Sunda New Asian in both towns, offering expertly-prepared sushi, exotic Asian dishes and a striking lounge atmosphere for late night when the focus turns from food to drinks and music.
But one night a month, specifically the last Tuesday of each month, Dec turns a long table in the main dining room into the chance to experience a beloved part of his Filipino culture with an extravagant Kamayan Feast. In the Philippines, kamayan means “with hands,” and true to the name, the entire meal is eaten with only the utensils God thoughtfully attached to the ends of your arms.
The evening begins with cocktails at the bar while all the guests arrive and the communal table is prepared. If Dec is in town, he’ll often address the diners to explain the traditions behind the feast and also what the heck is going on at that table. Anxious diners watch as the kitchen staff begins by covering the table with banana leaves like a bright green organic tablecloth. Then, buckets of sticky steamed rice are shoveled down the middle of the table to create a palate for the amazing feast to come, as well as a base for you to build each bite after you scoop it up into your cupped hand and then push into your mouth with your thumb. (Don’t worry, they’ll show you how to do it–or you can just watch some experienced feasters for advice on the techniques.)
The drama really begins when tray after tray emerges from the kitchen piled high with exotic Filipino specialties like whole Crispy Fried Snapper, Lechon Kawali (Filipino pork belly), Crispy Soft Shell Crab, Shrimp and Chicken Adobo Skewers, Longanisa (Filipino sweet sausage), Purple Cauliflower, Crispy Pork Shank and more. Although the meal is served family-style, you don’t have to worry about passing any plates because the thoughtful wait staff makes sure that a healthy helping of each of the dishes is positioned every few feet, within arm’s reach of each diner and the person across from them.
Really, there’s little danger of not getting enough to eat, because the quantity of food is prodigious. Since just about every bite comes with a morsel of rice, you’ll probably find yourself filling up long before the food is gone, and smart diners bring their own containers to carry leftovers home. (Or you can ask the Sunda staff to help you package everything up.)
As delicious as the food is, an important part of any Kamayan Feast is the convivial atmosphere of dining with old and new friends. Any pretentions are dropped as soon as everyone digs in with their hands and discovers this important part of Filipino culture, traditionally meant to bring families together at the table for special events. The opportunity to experience the tastes, colors and even textures of expertly-prepared Filipino food is well worth the surprisingly affordable price of admission at just $55 plus the cost of drinks.
Note: You might want to keep a hand free for your cell phone camera, because this is an eminently Instagrammable happening. Plus, all your tablemates will have great smiles on their faces, so that makes for some good photos.
This special event is limited to the number of guests that can fit along both sides of the table, so reservations are strongly encouraged. Plan ahead and gather a group of friends that like to have fun for the most entertaining two hours you’ll ever spend in a restaurant!
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