Pierre Anthony Garque is rubbing his hands together before the food even hits the table — totally a normal thing to do when you see the waiter approaching and you’re Filipino.
“Oh that’s the spread, yeah that looks great,” he says, laughing as he sits across from Mark Sy, co-owner of Kawali Restaurant (4735 Van Horne Ave.).
The two friends are about to share a kamayan spread, typically served during big celebrations like birthdays and weddings.
“Kamayan is your hands, and so it means to be eating with your hands,” Sy says.
“We’ll be eating together with no utensils, just on banana leaves, and all the food is going to come out and it’s just really a way that we, in the Philippines, celebrate a special event.”
The spirit of the kamayan is to bring people together, highlighting the importance of community — as well as showing true trust because, well, you are putting your hands directly into everyone else’s food.
“If grandma’s there, then you definitely have to wait for her,” Sy warns.
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“True. We have a big respect for our elders in the Philippines. So, yeah, lola [grandma] gets first dibs,” Garque confirms.
Located the western Montreal city of Côte Saint-Luc, Sy explains the restaurant’s main clientele is the many Filipino families in the area.
“A lot of our customers are people who recently moved here from the Philippines; first generation, maybe second generation,” he told Global News.
Sy’s mother is the mastermind in the kitchen — even cutting in to take over for her son as he’s trying to cut through a banana leaf, to show him how it’s done.
“We really try to keep it as authentic to what people are used to eating back home so, my mother really tries to get it to taste how she would eat it when she’s back in the Philippines,” he says.
“Smell is such a big part of our memory and so, as soon as we see it [food] and we smell it, we’re instantly brought back to our childhood and what we grew up with.”
The traditional flavours are unique.
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“Filipino food is really bitter, and a lot of flavours. We use a lot of vinegar, a lot of soy sauce. It’s really salty and bitter,” Sy says.
“We really like layering flavours. Nothing is just sweet, nothing is just salty, everything is salty and sweet and spicy.”
Even more important than just “the food” is rice; like many Asian cultures, the white cereal grain is a staple — in fact, it’s an absolute must.
“It’s like a Filipino threat when you’re children, ‘I’m not going to give you rice if you act bad,'” explained Garque.
“I’ve seen my uncle do that a few times with my nieces. It’s kind of funny, like, really? You threatened her with rice? That’s your big weapon?”
Growing up in Montreal, Garque says he remembers how difficult it was simply being “different.”
“Being the Asian kid, bringing in Asian lunch to school, was kind of like, ‘What are you eating?'” Garque remembers.
“Now, people come over to my house like, ‘Oh man, that looks so amazing,’ and I’m like, ‘Weren’t you making fun of me in elementary school for bringing fish for something?'”
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As he’s gotten older, Garque says he’s learned to really appreciate their culture — one of many in Montreal’s multicultural landscape.
“When you’re eating like this, there’s something really intimate about it,” he explains.
“You’re very vulnerable, you let everything go. People are so reserved with a fork and knife and here you are, you have to dig in with your hands.”
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Just Like Home is a series that discovers the restaurants and places Montrealers from all walks of life go to have a little, nostalgic taste of their home countries.
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