For every fiesta there is a season
As in many places around the world, food is the center of celebration on Guam. A virtual cornucopia of fiesta foods are laid out – usually in a specific order – for every festive occasion. And “where America’s day begins,” there are ample opportunities to celebrate.
For starters, the island’s predominantly Roman Catholic population affords each village a patron saint and accompanying feast day. Each village parish honors this with an annual fiesta, and many families hold their own celebrations at home after the Festal Mass to make merry with relatives and friends.
There are also weddings, christenings, birthdays and graduations – not to mention holiday celebrations like Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter.
Traditional Chamorro dishes such as red rice, citrus-marinated meat or seafood “kaleguen,” and barbecue may be the staple of any Guam fiesta. However, some local delicacies are the darlings of the fiesta table during certain celebrations or special times of the year.
Village fiestas and weddings are the biggest celebrations with the most elaborate menus, according to Lou Cruz of Santa Rita. As such, they are likely to serve up Chamorro classics ranging from red-and-white tamales “gisu” and “bunelos uhang” shrimp patties to smoke dried beef and “panglao” (stuffed crab). These celebrations are also the most like to showcase the mother of all fiesta table features – “hotnon babui” – a roast pig.
“For magnificent celebrations we prepare and roast a whole pig,” says lifelong Guamanian Toshio Akigami. “Basting the pig while slowly roasting it over an open fire makes the skin crispy and the meat tender and juicy. The ears are the best parts; we like the crispy texture with the fat around the ears.”
Roasting pig for a wedding or fiesta – a practice believed to date back to the 17th century when the Spanish introduced pigs to the island – symbolizes a very special occasion, indeed. It’s a practice that grill aficionado behind BBQGuam.blogspot.jp, Rueben Olivas, knows a little something about.
“Back in the 1950s, the roast pig was pretty straight forward for the most part on Guam,” he said in November 2014 of traditionally hand-turning the pig over a handmade spit. “Nowadays, they are roasted in large ovens and stainless steel outdoor spits, turned by electric motors. (But) some roasting is still done in the traditional way on occasion.”
Whether or not a wedding fiesta features roast pig, one thing is certain: The duty of providing adult beverages and soft drinks typically falls on the groom’s godfather. But it’s the bride’s godmother, Cruz says, that provides the wedding cake and other desserts. It’s an opportunity for many to show off family recipes for “latiya” custard sponge cake, “kek chokulati” (chocolate cake) and sweet “apigigi’” tamales.
As with any fiesta, sweets like these have their own special place or table. And it’s the dessert table that gets special attention during Christmastime when seasonal donuts, cakes and other desserts rule.
“’Bunelos dagu’ is a special treat during the holiday season,” says Guam Visitors Bureau’s Josh Tyquiengco. “The yams used to make these fried donuts are usually harvested during the Christmas season.”
Annette Merfalen, Chamorro food expert and author behind AnniesChamorroKitchen.com, agrees that these deep-fried treats are “synonymous with Christmas” on Guam.
“There are several varieties of yams that you can use to make these donuts,” she writes in her online treasure trove of recipes. “If you live on Guam or the other Mariana Islands, you can use ‘dågu,’ ‘nika,’ or ‘gadu.’ There are also both white and red varieties of dagu (called dagun a’paka’ or dagun agaga’, respectively).”
Similarly, “bonelos dago,” or taro donuts, are also a traditional Christmas treat on Guam.
As with crispy fried “lumpia” spring rolls, pansit noodles with meat and vegetables is another popular dish Guam has adopted from the Philippines and made its own.
A mainstay of many fiesta tables on island, pansit is particularly favored at birthday and New Year’s Eve celebrations, perhaps as a nod to the Asian custom of eating them on such occasions to ensure long life. If so, it wouldn’t be Guam’s only imported culinary custom.
This U.S. territory also shares a very American traditional feast – Thanksgiving. As much a celebrated holiday for feasting with friends and family as in the States, the local love for barbecue on Guam means that a smoked or grilled turkey may take the place of an oven-roasted bird at the fiesta table. And what would a Thanksgiving turkey be without the stuffing?
“Chamorro stuffing, or ‘riyenu,’ is a delicious side dish usually served during special holiday meals, alongside baked turkey, ham, or roast pig,” writes Merfalen. “My mom taught me how to make this a very long time ago, when I was a very young girl. In fact, this recipe is one of the few I added to a recipe book that I made when I was perhaps 8 or 9 years old.”
So what makes Chamorro stuffing so Chamorro?
“Well, I guess it’s the addition of potatoes, pimento and olives, kind of like our Chamorro potato salad,” she says. “A few optional ingredients that my mom sometimes puts in her riyenu are finely diced celery and a small jar of sweet pickle relish. I prefer my stuffing without those two ingredients, so I leave them out.”
Like so many other delicacies – whether with a Chamorro twist or 100 percent native – that bear the indelible stamp of one of the island’s special occasions, church fiestas or state holidays, it’s just one more way to get a true taste of Guam.