First came the banana leaves: glossy, dark-green rectangles, cut down to the size of placemats and perpendicularly striped with veins. Our server covered the table in leaves so that we could only see the wood around the edges. Then she brought out a tray of vegetables to arrange on the leaf mat, setting identical piles on opposite ends: half-moons of ripe mango, caramelized yams, and lengths of roasted eggplant with shiny, wrinkled skins. Salted eggs with yolks a furious orange. Heaps of chopped onion and tomato.
She returned to the kitchen and came back laden with bowls of rice to dump onto the leaves, flanking the colorful mounds of vegetables, then set down a constellation of small bowls. My guests identified their contents as vinegar with chopped onions, soy-kalamansi sauce, pungent bagoong (shrimp paste), and dipping sauces of various colors and levels of sweetness.
Just as I had begun sneaking bites of the yam, the server returned with our table's centerpiece, which she tipped onto the center — a starburst of fried and grilled meats, with a whole catfish, tail winsomely curled, at the center.
What she didn't bring: forks, spoons, or napkins. Instead, we were directed to thewashing sink in back.
House of Sisig, in a Daly City strip mall decorated with Greek-ish statuary and anchored by a Korean grocery store, serves all the dishes non-Filipinos have heard of, as well as less-familiar dishes like guisadong sayote (sauteed chayote with ground beef) and pinalutong na tadyang (deep-fried short ribs). Not advertised on the restaurant's regular menu or its website, though, are its set kamayan ("eat with the hands") dinners for parties of two, four, six, or more.
I learned about these dinners from my guest: Joanne Boston, co-founder of a new dining group named KapaMEALya (www.kapamealya.org), which organizes both traditional and contemporary Filipino dinners around the Bay Area. Kamayan, the pre-colonial way to eat, is becoming rare in modern-day Philippines — almost a special-occasion meal. For Boston, kamayan means picnic. "Kamayan dinners remind me of eating on the beach in the Philippines, or childhood meals," she said.
Only a third of the tables around us at House of Sisig were eating kamayan-style. More than a few looked like they were rescuing meat from a fire hazard, a column of steam rising out of a sizzling platter of the restaurant's namesake dish. In the Philippines, sisig — braised, chopped, and then fried pork — is a drinking snack, the equivalent of nachos, but in the Bay Area it shows up in restaurants and every Filipino food truck with a Twitter account.
In fact, I'd been to House of Sisig a week earlier for the sizzling pork sisig ($10.95), which the restaurant makes American-style with leaner cuts of meat rather than the jigglier, juicer bits from around the head. Doused with soy and lime, caramelized on the cast iron, and tossed with egg, minced onions, and jalapeños, the sisig was all meat and char, hard to stop snacking on. We counterbalanced it with scoops of rice impregnated with toasted garlic ($2) and spoonfuls of bangus (milkfish) belly sinigang ($10.95), a clear, tamarind-based soup with enough vegetables to balance out the meat and enough sourness to constrict your cheeks, wiping away the sisig's smoke and salt.
My regular, spoon-and-fork dinner was certainly good, but it was hard to match the spectacle of banana leaves covered in food. As if a mountain of roasted meats weren't impressive enough, we passed around a plate of House of Sisig's tahong, or broiled mussels, a bonus for anyone who orders the $68.95, six-person dinner. Each mollusk was smothered in a hyperbolically aromatic salsa of coarsely chopped garlic and scallions sauteed with shrimp paste, lemon, and melted butter. Because the kamayan meal is light on vegetables, we tacked an order of laing ($8.95) onto our meal: taro leaves cooked until satiny, then stewed with coconut milk, chiles, thumbnail-sized curls of shrimp, and translucent cubes of pork fat. The laing was perhaps my favorite dish of the night — you'll just have to trust me when I say it wasn't anywhere near the gut-bomb it sounds.
We dabbed bits of laing onto rice, pressed it together, and popped the small mounds into our mouths. We pulled apart the eggplant with our fingers and filled the skins with salted egg, tomato, and soy-lime sauce. We fished lumpia, each smaller than a roll of dimes and stuffed with juicy pork, out of the heap to dip into sweet-soy sauce, and pulled the heads off the shrimp to devour the meat and crisp shells coated lightly in flour. If the lechon kawali, or fried pork belly, was too tough for my tastes, and the magenta-hued barbecued chicken and tapa (grilled beef) weren't as succulent as the skewers you can buy at the nearby Fil-Am Cuisine, so be it. There was enough catfish, steaming and delicate under its golden shell, to pluck off the bone and dip in vinegar.
The kamayan meal itself was better than any one component: Something about the act of reaching onto a communal table of food, or pressing rice and vegetables together with fingertips on the banana leaves' smooth surface, displaced the sensation of being in a restaurant, or eating in public, or being served by waiters. I could see why it evoked strong memories of childhood for Boston. Some part of my brain expected to look out the window and see not a foggy parking lot but the long, bright expanse of the Sulu Sea.