The Fiesta Table: Serving up a traditional Chamorro feast
The story of Guam’s fiesta table goes far beyond the red rice or the famous finá denné sauce. As the center of Catholic celebrations in honor of each village’s patron saint, the fiesta table symbolizes much more than sharing food with family and guests. People are united around it in celebration, making it a centra part of the Chamorro culture.
While some traditional Chamorro dishes originated in the Marianas Islands, many have been adapted using recipes borrowed from other parts of the world including the Philippines, Asia, Europe, North and South America. Fiesta recipes, which have many of the same ingredients as dishes from their origin, have been adapted by Chamorros to make them their own.
Preparing for a fiesta requires intense participation from every member of the family. Girls usually help their mothers, aunts, cousins, and sisters in the kitchen while fathers, uncles, brothers, and sons prepare the outdoor kitchen, drinks station, and eating area.
Once everything is prepared, food is placed on the fiesta table in a specific order - with plates, cutlery and napkins first. The most important dish is placed directly after - red rice. Although rice has been a staple in the Chamorro diet for hundreds of years, it was not prepared using the achote seed until Spanish settlers introduced the plant to Guam. Most likely from the Philippines or Mexico, achote releases a dye when soaked in water, which is then mixed with rice to give a distinct orange color. Other ingredients are often added including bacon, onion, garlic, and peas.
After the rice comes other starches including titiyas (flatbread made of corn or flour), lemmai (breadfruit), and gollai appan aga (bananas with coconut milk). Meat comes next with chicken first, followed by beef and pork. Chamorro barbecue ribs and chicken are a staple at the fiesta table, with most marinated for 3-4 hours in a soy sauce and vinegar mixture, then seared on an open grill over charcoal or tangan tangan wood embers. Next is the island’s famouse finá denné, which can be spooned over food or used as a dipping sauce.
Pork - if not set apart on a separate carving table - is placed after other meat, with seafood including shrimp patties, lumpia, and eskabeche following. Next comes kelaguen, dishes characterized by a technique used in preparing chopped meats with lemon juice, salt, grated coconut, and red peppers. Chicken, beef, shrimp and even Spam® kelaguen may be featured on the table.
Salads are placed toward the end. Several varieties are usually prepared including potato, garden, cucumber, cucumber and diago kimchee, and cole slaw. Last comes desserts, which are often set on a separate table. Some favorites include buñelos aga, latiya (vanilla custard spongecake), apigigi (coconut wrapped in banana leaf) or ahu (sweet coconut porridge).
Fiestas often last all day and night, prompting the fiesta table to be refilled several times. To help the host family offset the cost of food, friends and guests oft en bring chenchulé - or an offering - in the form of money or additional dishes.