A Feast for the Eyes and the Stomach

May 22, 2017 Elizabeth M. San Nicolas

Arguably, it may be the most memorable souvenir every visitor to Guam takes home with them. They don’t buy it at the duty free or lug it home in a suitcase. Ask any military service member who has been stationed on island, be it five or fifty years ago, what they remember most, and you’re sure to hear it mentioned with some degree of reverence.

It’s our unforgettable fiesta food—that delicious mix of cultures and traditions on a single plate, served up with a warm welcome and a generous spirit.

The traditional fiesta table features red rice, fresh bread, titiyas, grilled meats, finadene, seafood, kelaguen, vegetables, and salads. If it’s a big party, an entire table might be dedicated to carving a whole roasted pig, steamboat roast, or ham. If you’re lucky, there may also be tamales gisu, sashimi, lumpia, pancit, and other cultural favorites or special comfort foods to enjoy.

The red rice is truly the anchor of the entire table. Achote seeds are soaked in warm water with oil and salt, and then stirred to produce the characteristic bright or deep red-orange color. The achote water is added to uncooked white rice. Then onions, bacon, peas, chicken broth, and garlic or any combination of those ingredients are also added for extra flavor.

The chopped vegetables you see on the fiesta table sitting in a white coating are gollaiåppan: starchy veggies like taro, breadfruit, and plantains in coconut cream. According to Guampedia, this dish may be the most ancient on the table, dating to the first migrations of people to Guam from Southeast Asia. During World War II and other food shortages, the filling—starchy gollaiåppan—was a lifesaver.

Titiyas, or tortillas, is a staple food that dates back to the Spanish era, according to Guampedia. Corn and flour titiyas are usually found at the fiesta table, but månha (young coconut) and faddang (Frederico nut) titiyas are also tasty varieties.

Beef, chicken, and pork marinated overnight in onions, vinegar, soy sauce, and peppers, then grilled to tasty perfection are a Guam trademark. No party is complete without the men gathered around the barbecue, socializing and filling the air with aromatic smoke. Trays of fried chicken, pork belly, or tinala' katne (dried beef) may be on the table alongside the spareribs, barbecue chicken, and short ribs.

The customary condiment on Guam is finadene—white or black, with extra hot Tinian peppers. White finadene, served with seafood, is made from lemon or vinegar. Black finadene, which goes with everything, has a soy-sauce base.

Surrounded by the ocean, Guam lists seafood as its staple food for centuries. At the fiesta, you can find reef fish barbecued, poached, or fried. Eskabeche, stuffed crab, shrimp patties, and more often line the table after the meats.

Kelaguen is a signature Chamorro specialty. A chosen protein is cooked in lemon juice with salt, onions, hot peppers, and sometimes coconut. It can be made with beef, chicken, binådu (deer), fish, clams, shrimp, octopus, squid, and even Spam. Usually chicken is barbecued first, then chopped into small pieces. Cooking raw meat with acid has caught on with Food Network and other cooking shows. If you watch someone make ceviche on Top Chef, they’re making kelaguen.

At the end of the table you usually find potato salad, crab salad, and a green salad or two. There may also be cucumber and daigo in soy sauce, spinach in coconut milk, or eggplant to fill out your plate.

For dessert, often a separate table is set aside and filled with a selection of pies, cheesecake, red velvet or pistachio cake, and fruit salad. Local treats like rosketi cookies, boñelos (round donuts made from banana or taro), or latiya (a sponge cake topped with creamy vanilla custard and sprinkled with cinnamon) are also favorite offerings, depending on the family.

You might also see coconut delicacies like åhu, a sweet drink made from young coconut, or potu, small rice cakes made with tuba (fermented coconut sap). Pastit (baked turnovers) or the fried version, buchibuchi, are also a tasty ending to the fiesta.

Fiesta tables do change with the times. Where one family may have added Vietnamese fresh lumpia or their own favorite dish, other foods are disappearing. There are a few traditional dishes that you may come across only rarely.

Fritada, a spicy, blood stew made from internal organs and meat from pig, cow, or deer is one. Another is riyenu, or Chamorro stuffing. It differs from the American version because it has ground beef thrown in with bread cubes, olives, celery, peas, bell peppers, and other ingredients. Sheila San Augustine, or “the boss,” at Chode’s Food Service in Anigua says these are not on their regular menu, but they can make them by request.

Other ancient Chamorro staple foods have become endangered species, like fanihi (fruit bat) and green sea turtle. Next to fish, these were once main sources of protein for ancient Chamorros, according to Guampedia.

No matter what the spread consists of, you’re guaranteed to be surrounded by family, friends, and great food at a Guam fiesta. It’s no wonder the iconic fiesta table has become a symbol of local hospitality and good cheer.

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