The (BBQ) fish tale of Guam

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Leche Guihan (Photos courtesy of Guampedia)
Leche Guihan (Photos courtesy of Guampedia)

The (BBQ) fish tale of Guam

by: Jillette Leon-Guerrero | .
Guampedia | .
published: January 31, 2017

Fish was the primary protein source for ancient Chamorros.

Chamorro men and women were expert fishermen. The sea surrounding the island was said to be teeming with fish, so much so that according to the account of Catholic Fray Juan Pobre in 1602:

the people living along the shores of these islands catch so many fish that they have enough fish for everyone –like the sardine catches in Spain.

Evolution
Fish was abundantly supplied by the sea surrounding the island. From earliest records it is noted that ancient Chamorros ate fish “raw, or sun-dried.” Catholic priest Father Peter Coomans noted that when fish was “macerated in salt, they are delicious.”

The ancient Chamorro employed several types of fishing techniques.  According to Fr. Medina:
Both men and women were accustomed to jump from their little boats after a fish and to catch and eat it raw.

The Legaspi expedition reported that the natives caught gadao (rock cod) and pulonan (trigger fish) with their hands, a method still in practice by Chamorro men and women after WWII.

Other techniques used to catch fish:

  • With hook and line. Fishhooks were made of pearl shell, fish bone and turtle shell and attached to lines made of coconut and pineapple fiber. Chamorros were also reported to have trawled for bonito.
  • Drag and casting nets. These were made of hibiscus and pineapple fiber (this was introduced by the Spanish) and were employed to catch (among other fish) manahag (manahak), a tiny silvery fish, which run during the month of April and occasionally October.
  • A small hand net, lagua atchuman was used to catch atchuman (type of mackerel) that were lured to the surface by grated coconut that was discharged from a coconut-shell cup attached to a stone sinker.
  • Spear fishing was employed as a means to catch fish.
  • The fruit of the putting was used to stupefy fish in order to more easily catch them.
  • In 1819 Freycinet reported that traditional ghigau (fish ponds) constructed of stone along the shore had been replaced with weirs of reeds. After the war the reeds were replaced with chicken wire.

In 1945 Laura Thompson reported that there were two fishing seasons named in the native calendar: Umatalaf, the March moon which means go and catch a kind of fish call “guatafi” and Umatalaf, the moon between December and January, signifying to “go Cray fishing.”

Pobre gives an account of the distribution of a large catch by a fisherman in 1602:

In the cleanest spot beside his house, he spreads a well-washed clean woven mat and lays fresh palm fronds on it. On top of this, he places his marlin or mahimahi, or whatever fish he has caught, and begins to cut it open with a stone knife…as a special gift, he distributes the blood, entrails fat, and intestines to the children who have carried the fish home for him and places the raw mass in their mouths.

In like manner, these people slice pieces from the back of the fresh fish and send to their neighbors. The remaining part of the fish is salted according to certain ritual procedures.

Flying fish (gaga) is eaten raw or cooked. One method reported in Pobre’s account involves baked flying fish. After the fish is baked, the head and scales are removed. The flesh is crumbled into little pieces.  They grate a coconut and mix with salt. They put this coconut mixture on top of the fish.

Fish continues to be a staple of the Chamorro diet. Today it can be found cooked in various forms.  A favorite continues to be barbecued fish. It is probable that fish has been cooked this way for centuries.  Today barbecued fish can be simply sprinkled with salt and pepper and grilled till done or more elaborately prepared with spices, lemon, mayonnaise and butter then encased in foil and thrown on the grill.

Preparation
Both men and women can catch and prepare fish although barbecuing in modern Guam tends to be an male activity.

Placement on table
The fish section of the fiesta table follows the meat (totche) section, which is second to the starch (åggon) section which leads the table.

Recipe

Barbecued Fish in Fina’denne’

1 reef fish 2-3 pounds  [parrot fish (palaske), snapper (buha, fafa’et), unicorn fish (hangon, tataga)]
Salt, to taste
Black pepper, to taste

Fina’denne’: Chamorro spicy sauce
½  onion, sliced
3 lemons, squeezed
3 tablespoons water
Salt, to taste
Red pepper, to taste

Clean fish, sprinkle with spices. Place on the barbecue and grill until done. Place fish in a serving dish. Set aside.

Mix ingredients for fina’denne’ in a separate bowl. Then, pour over fish and serve. Or dip fish into sauce as you eat.

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