Malou Perez-Nievera adjusts the placement of various Filipino finger-foods. She scuffles in red cowboy boots, casually moving from one grilled mackerel to the next, garnishing each fish with homemade pickled jicama slaw. She finishes placing the final touches on 11 dishes stretching down the center of a banana leaf-covered communal table. It’s a visual feast soon to be disassembled and devoured with 40 sets of bare hands. In her native Filipino, kamayan translates to “eat with hands,” and at Perez-Nievera’s Kamayan Night dinners, people eat sans utensils.
It’s January 2017, which marks Perez-Nievera’s sixteenth Kamayan Night dinner at Hiro Asian Kitchen in Downtown St. Louis. Since the first dinner in September 2015, many attendees have become regulars. One quickly comes to realize that although her guests jokingly say they come in hopes of her beloved Spam fries, it’s the friendships fostered by her dinners that keeps people coming back. Perez-Nievera’s food connects with them beyond the normal chef-to-diner relationship; she feeds their souls as the matriarch of their friendly family, an identity that has made her feel at home as an immigrant in the U.S.
In May of 2000, Perez-Nievera officially moved from her native Philippines to Long Island. Her husband, Christian Nievera, was temporarily living in New York, where he was studying to become an immunologist. She and their three kids had only planned on a quick visit – until she spontaneously decided to move there permanently in support of his career.
At first, she lamented her move to America, considering what she’d be sacrificing. She grew up in the Philippines, and much of her family still lived there, including her mother and most of her siblings. It’s also where she and her brother had established a successful business, owning four clothing stores. And following the couple’s move to the states, they never settled in one city for more than a few years. Her husband’s job took them from New York to Florida to California, perpetuating the feeling that the U.S. was just their temporary home. Her real home was the Philippines, where life – and food – was much different. She missed comfort foods like adobo and yearned for home, where her accent could never make her feel out of place.
Growing up and into adulthood, Perez-Nievera only cooked on special occasions, and always with her family’s cook. Her move to America meant that if she longed for the traditional comfort foods her cook used to make regularly, then she had to make them herself. “I’d cry chopping food, and ask myself, ‘What am I doing here?’” she says, playfully imitating sobs before breaking into a throaty laugh.
It was seeing her kids’ appreciation for her Filipino food that helped change her tune, and in time she came to really enjoy cooking. “I found my reason in the kitchen… It’s kind of an escape, like I’m taking myself home every single time.”
She began developing a love for cooking and experimenting in the kitchen. In 2010, when her youngest daughter was leaving for college, Perez-Nievera wanted to distract herself from an empty nest, so she started a food blog, Skip to Malou: Cooking with a Filipino Accent.
When she started writing, only a handful of bloggers and online publications had been publishing content about her native cuisine. Since then, she’s noticed an uptick in popularity: a Filipino food movement taking root in food media across the globe. In fact, industry outlets from Eater to Food Network have named Filipino cuisine the leading food trend of 2017.
Perez-Nievera stays true to the traditional salty, sweet and vinegary flavors of Filipino cuisine, but because she wants her food to be appealing to unfamiliar diners as well, she presents dishes with modern food styling. She drives interest to her recipes by balancing texture and composition, garnishing food with a little color and plating it on contrasting colored or uniquely shaped platters. Her approach really caught on after the family moved to St. Louis from San Diego in 2015.
“For the first time, I moved to a city without any relatives, and the people embraced and welcomed me,” she says.
Her new neighbor, KSDK weekend news anchor and KTRS radio host Kelly Jackson, learned of Perez-Nievera’s passion for food and invited her to host a guest cooking segment on Today in St. Louis. Soon after, other media outlets and culinary schools began requesting similar appearances. Perez-Nievera ventured into hosting brunches, pop-up dinners and fundraisers at places like Ocha Thai & Japanese Cuisine and Frazer’s. She developed a following, including more than 8 million total views on YouTube, where she posted cooking videos.
Eventually, by fall of 2015, she convinced Bernie Lee, executive chef and owner of Hiro Asian Kitchen, to let her host Filipino-inspired pop-up dinners at his restaurant. Lee taught Perez-Nievera the discipline required to cook in a commercial kitchen. Today, the pair continue to host monthly dinners and supplement Hiro's Saturday brunch menu with a popular selection of Filipino dishes developed by Perez-Nievera.
Preparing the Whole Kit and Kaboodle
The day of her January Kamayan Night, it’s 4pm and Perez-Nievera has prepared most of the food ahead of time.
She lifts a foil covering off a baking dish. Seconds before, the dish had just the subtle, nose-tickling aroma of pork ribs. Once the foil is removed, the scent escalates to a mouthwatering blend of grilled meat and vinegar doused in a sweet glaze. She’s marinated the meat for three days, and it’s the dish she’s most looking forward to serving tonight.
“The guava jelly I used to glaze the meat came from my hometown – the guava was actually harvested from my brother-in-law’s orchard,” she says proudly.
Perez-Nievera’s hometown is Tuguegarao, in the Cagayan province, the northern-most tip of the Philippines, which is an area historically inhabited by the Ibanag tribe. She says the food of her Ibanag people isn’t well-known, so she takes pride in sharing menus that are influenced by the simple garlicky-vinegar flavor that sets their dishes apart. For instance, tonight, she’s serving sinanta con pinakufu shooters, a crustacean broth of Manila clams, shrimp and mussels with sweet sticky rice balls unique to her town.
As it gets closer to mealtime, Perez-Nievera ladles a batter of eggs, eggplant and crab meat into a waffle iron while explaining that tortang talong is traditionally served like an omelet. This is one example of Perez-Nievera’s modern or personal touches applied to traditional preparations.
She says with Kamayan-style dining, she must also account for people eating each course with their hands. So instead of serving a bowl of bulalo – a Filipino stew made with beef bone marrow, corn and potatoes – she deconstructs the dish into finger-friendly potato croquettes infused with bone marrow, served alongside fried corn nuts, a traditional Filipino snack called chicha corn.
Kamayan stems from a traditional way of eating in the Filipino military called a Boodle Fight, where a meal is spread out over a long table blanketed in banana leaves to promote camaraderie among the ranks. It’s a family-style method of eating practiced by Filipinos all over the world. Perez-Nievera says she’s gotten some dissension from a couple of Filipinos, but most see it as she does: a fun way to introduce otherwise unfamiliar diners to their home cuisine. It pushes people out of their comfort zone initially, but eventually, she says, it reminds them of being kids again.
Lee helps Perez-Nievera arrange the feast on the table while she also runs the kitchen. Of a similar vision, Lee begins adding mounds of noodles, rice and asado-glazed Brussels sprouts, layering each item with careful composition, as if he’s creating a still life. He places qwek qwek – deep-fried quail eggs in a red chile sauce – on a plate of pineapple near where the bulalo croquettes are nesting below corn nuts.
It’s nearing 7:30pm when Perez-Nievera comes out of the kitchen to share tonight’s surprise menu item: fried pig’s ears.
“Every dinner is an adventure!” she says with a devilish grin. She knows a few noses will wrinkle at the traditional Filipino snack, and that only some people will be adventurous enough to try it. That’s part of the fun.
Diners haven’t yet been seated even though the dinner was supposed to begin at 7pm; they sip wine and lychee martinis behind red curtains in the entryway. Perez-Nievera's guests aren’t fazed by tardiness. She says they’re used to what she calls “Filipino time,” or waiting to lay dishes on the table until everyone has arrived.
As she places the final dish on the table, a patron yells at her through the curtains.
“It’s not fertilized duck embryos, is it?” he asks. And it’s not a joke – that was a surprise at a past Kamayan Night dinner.
“Hi, Alan!” she says, recognizing his voice before she can even see him. She says he’s the most entertaining of all her guests; he and his partner, LeRoy, have attended her past 13 dinners. Alan works as a physical therapist and used to work with Filipino nurses at a former job in California, which is what led him to seek out Perez-Nievera’s Kamayan Night.
“It’s real Filipino,” he says.
She takes one satisfied look at her table and walks over to the red curtain, tearing it open:
“Welcome to Kamayan Night,” she yells with love as attendees clap and cheer.
Life is in Her Hands
Perez-Nievera greets each guest she knows by name. And as she introduces herself to new diners, she warns them that they might become like Sean, a Ph.D. student at Washington University in St. Louis, who’s been to every Kamayan Night dinner since its inception. She gives a shout out to all the repeat offenders, stating how many dinners they’ve each attended.
As people snap photos of the colorful sprawl before them, Perez-Nievera explains the meaning of Kamayan and states her only rule: “You reach with your left [hand] and eat with your right.” It’s an easy rule in theory, but right-handed diners might find it surprisingly difficult to execute.
She then informs the table of the meal’s theme that evening: rounds and circles. Eating circular or round foods is a Filipino tradition for celebrating the new year. Symbolizing infinity, the food promises a continuance of good fortune and happiness.
As the dinner begins, hands reach across the table as people grab for bits of salpicao – skewered grilled beef with lots of garlic – or rip off parts of the tortang talong eggplant waffle-omelet hybrid. Guests exuberate with sighs of delight, fully taking in the experience and directing their neighbors to “Try the quail eggs!” or tilting their heads back to gulp a fist full of long flat noodles made with rice and tapioca flour. The party eats and eats until everyone is so full that they can barely get out of their seats; this is when Perez-Nievera makes her way around the table, pausing to chat with each of her friends. She stops next to Alan, wrapping her arms around his neck in a friendly embrace.
“He and LeRoy throw the best parties – you should come next time!” she says to a stranger who’s now a new friend. It’s the of type fun-loving, inclusive environment that one longs to be part of.
It’s no wonder that Perez-Nievera is all smiles as her guests say goodbye at the end of the meal. She makes plans with one person to go shopping and promises another couple that she’ll see them again soon.
Perez-Nievera has a busy year ahead – she says the circular-themed new year’s food secured good fortune in her life. She’s got plans to do a pop-up dinner tour at restaurants around St. Louis (including a partnership with local favorite Guerrilla Street Food) and then she’s making stops in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Nebraska and Texas. To top it off, she’s putting the finishing touches on a cookbook she’s been writing for two years. Titled Connect the Pots, it charts her culinary journey so far, connecting her life and her family in the U.S. to her home in the Philippines.
She gets a little choked up when she thinks about where life has taken her in the past 17 years and how proud her children are of her today. “They are so proud of their mom because they feel like I’ve reinvented myself here in the United States,” she says.
Although Perez-Nievera admits she sometimes feels caught in between her two worlds – she says she doesn’t feel as American as some other Americans, yet because of her time in the U.S., she no longer feels as Filipino as she once did – her Kamayan Night family makes St. Louis feel like home.
“My friends here are my family,” she says. “We’ve become really close. So, now, I love St. Louis. I always tell my husband that this is my home.”
Kamayan Night, 314.241.4476, hiroasiankitchen.com/weekly-events