Guam is hooked on seafood - and you should be, too!
Nothing says life on a tropical island like an abundance of fresh fish. And nothing says “Taste of Guam” more than the myriads of ways it is prepared and served up for almost every occasion here.
From grilled parrot fish to fried tilapia to mahimahi sashimi, whether cold cooked in lemon juice, simmered in coconut cream or dipped in “finadene” sauce, a meal is not a meal without fish to many Guamanians.
“Any gathering becomes more inviting when fish is on the menu,” says Manuel P. Duenas, president of Guam Fishermen’s Cooperative Association. “Folks on Guam traditionally eat fish; and no matter what non-fish dish is served, the fish will be the first (dish needing) to be refilled.”
Along with seafood and vegetables, fish is not only an important part of the Island’s food culture and an indispensable staple at various gatherings. It has also been an integral part of a traditional diet that has contributed to the healthy lifestyle of islanders.
“Local seafood in Guam is important especially for fiestas – barbecues with not only meats, but seafood as well, as most locals are avid fishermen themselves,” says Kevin Sassano, food and beverage director at Hilton Guam Resort & Spa.
In fact, so great is the local love of fish, that, when combined with tourists’ appetites, it dwarfs the local supply, making it necessary to import most of the fish and seafood consumed on Guam. Nearly $11.5 million worth of fish and seafood were imported in 2012 alone, according to the most recent Guam government statistics.
Large commercial enterprises like the Hilton have little choice but to import fish and seafood, according to Sassano.
“Local fisheries would not be able to keep up (with the demand),” he says. “We have some local fishermen that go out and catch fish but only occasionally. Consistency is what poses a problem.”
By comparison, only $507,285 worth of locally caught fish – about 4 percent of the total consumed – made it ashore in 2012, according to the Guam government.
“Most seafood is imported from Hawaii or the continental United States,” says Koichi Takai, general manager of Seafood Chef restaurant. “Although some local fish, such as lapu-lapu, parrotfish and tilapia are available locally, much of it is also flown in from the Philippines or the Chuuk Islands.
“Nearly all fish that can be caught in Guam is pretty much the same as fish from any other part of Micronesia,” he adds.
That is an opinion that many Guamanians might disagree with.
“It is a common thought that the fish from Guam taste better than that of any other place in Micronesia,” says Duenas.
For many, he adds, local fish adds a distinct texture as well as taste of Guam to local dishes.
“Some are soft which require little cooking and often are either pan fried or broiled,” says Duenas. “Some are great for frying and the flesh remains intact during the cooking process – the secret is high heat. Some are great for soups and do not fall apart. Others can be cooked whole on the grill or wrapped in banana leaves or foil for an aromatic smoked flavor.”
So, what kind of fish is likely to be the local catch of the day?
Species that comprised some of the largest catches off Guam’s shores in 2012 included skipjack tuna (34,286 pounds), mahimahi (29,618 pounds), unicorn fish (28,852 pounds) and wahoo (23,723 pounds), according to the Guam government.
“Mahi-mahi, lapu lapu and parrot fish are some of the most popular local fish in Guam,” says Sasano.
In addition to grilling, locals love raw fish as well, according to Takai: “They can eat raw tuna and mahimahi as sashimi. They put a lot of lemon juice on their raw fish and dip them in soy sauce with wasabi and Tabasco.”
What pleases local palates most, however, are dishes with that of a traditional island twist.
“Our local clientele are mostly interested in ‘kado’ style, which is a recipe containing coconut milk, ginger and lemon grass,” says Sassano. “’Kelaguen’ is too, (it uses) a seviche-style delivery of (cooking) acid, such as in lime, lemon and peppers.”
According to Takai, Guam’s food culture is heavily influenced by the Philippines because of the many Filipinos living on the island. “Grilled or fried tilapia and blue mussels are very popular here just like in the Philippines,” he says. “They also often stew seafood with coconut milk or cream and put hot finadene sauce on it, too.”
It joins other culinary influences from Spain, the U.S. and Japan. Like a magnificent batch of marlin kelaguen, however, these influences marinate in the local culture, creating their own distinct tastes of Guam.
Where to catch the one that didn't get away
You can get local seafood fresh off the boat at Guam Fishermen’s Cooperative Association, aka Fisherman’s Co-op, in Hagatna.
This non-profit organization boasts it’s the oldest and only fully operational cooperative in the entire Pacific Rim that operates a fish retail outlet. It has been at it for more than 37 years.
Fisherman’s Co-op serves more than 400 customers daily, accounting for 70-80 percent of the recorded local catch, according to its president, Manuel Duenas.
“Freshness and handling makes our seafood second to none,” says Duenas. “While most places are dominated by a large-scale commercial fishery with a week or longer trips (to market), our local fishermen only fish for a day and at the most two days. So the catch is really fresh – recognizing that even a three week old fish in other places are considered ‘fresh’ since they have never been frozen.
“We are always willing to share our personal favorite recipes,” he added.
Guam Fishermen’s Cooperative Association
Address: Greg Drive, Perez Marina, Hagatna
Hours: 10 a.m.-7 p.m.
For more information about local fish, call 472-6323
The island's laudable local catch
What makes Guam fish so tasty? It’s the water – and a lot more.
So says Manuel Duenas, president of Guam Fishermen’s Cooperative Association.
The island’s surrounding reef not only protects Guam’s waters from outside contaminants. When combined with the strong tides and currents, it serves as a constant filter, providing a pristine environment for the perfect catch of the day, according to Duenas.
“Unlike the colder water fish, the species (here) have just as many varieties in texture,” as they do flavor, he says.
Basically, he adds, local fish can be divided into three categories, each with its own range of species that are preferred locally for various dishes and occasions.
Of the pelagic fish from the open sea like mahi-mahi, wahoo and bonita (or bonito), blue marlin and yellow-fin are the most sought after by fishermen here, Duenas says.
Marlin is preferred by locals for the popular Chamorro dish, “kelaguen guihan,” in which it is cubed marinated in lemon juice, salt, hot peppers and green onions with freshly grated nearly mature coconut. Yellow fin tuna, on the other hand, is preferred for sashimi.
Mahimahi and wahoo are mostly used for cooked dishes ranging from the simple fried fish to fish tacos. And bonita is used for Kelaguen, soups, frying and flavoring, he adds.
Reef fish is equally prized by Guamanians, according to Duenas, primarily as the main cooked dish for a gathering. Large species such as the unicorn, emperor snapper and parrot fish are highly sought after. Smaller reef fish also play an important role for more intimate gatherings. This includes the smaller parrot fish, rabbit fish, and orange tang, to mention a few.
Bottom fish, those caught at depths ranging from 25 to 1,000 feet, are another local favorite. On Guam, the deeper the fish dwells the less fishy odor it has, according to Duenas. Of those found in shallower depths, red snapper is most prized for grilling.
The deeper-dwelling fish such as gindai, ehu and onaga are just as desirable, however, prices tend to be much higher for these. Again, the smaller the fish, the more private and intimate the meal, whereas the larger fish often becomes the focal point of any festive occasion, according to Duenas.
Although availability can vary from season to season, summer – when the waters are calmer – usually yields the best bottom and reef fish. Mahi-mahi is usually fished from December to April, while onaga is usually caught January to April.
Due to the rough waters, wintertime is not an optimal time for fishing, except certain periods of calm. The best time for juvenile rabbit fish? Duenas says it’s in April during the fourth-quarter moon.
Helpful hints on serving up seafood a la Guam
Once you’ve gotten that fresh local fish, how are you going to prepare it? Why not try it like the locals do?
Thanks to those in the know – the Guam Fisherman’s Cooperative Association – here are some popular recipes. Try one, or all, for an authentic taste of Guam seafood.
Kelaguen Guihan (Fish)
- 2 lbs. Fresh Marlin
- 1 small onion (chopped)
- 8-10 lemon juice
- 1 tsp. salt
- 3-4 red peppers (crushed)
- Optional: ¼ cup grated coconut,
- 1 tbsp. kim chee base
Cut fish into small thin pieces. Place in a large bowl. Add lemon juice and squeeze fish well. Add onions, salt and peppers. Serve chilled.
Local Style Poki
- 2 lbs. Marlin (cubed)
- 1 tbsp. Sesame oil
- 1 stalk Ginger (grated)
- 1 small jar kim chee base
- ½ stalk yellow diago radish (chopped)
- 6 hot peppers
- 3 stalks green onion (chopped)
- Dry Sushi Nori (seaweed) for garnish
In a mixing bowl, combine marlin cubes and sesame oil, ginger, and peppers, making sure to coat all the fish. Pour in kim chee base, pouring just enough to coat the fish. Mix in green onions and daigo; garnish with seaweed.
Serve with tortillas or with hot rice.
Marlin Candy Kabobs
- ½ cup brown sugar
- ½ cup soy sauce
- 2 tbs. minced fresh ginger
- 3 tbs. chopped green onions
- 1/2½ tsp. sesame oil
- 1/8 tsp. Chinese five spice powder
- 2 lbs. marlin loin
- 1 pkg. bamboo skewers
- 1 whole onion
- 2 whole bell pepper
Cut marlin, onions and bell pepper into cubes for kabobs. Arrange fish and vegetables, alternating on skewer. Marlinade for 30 minutes. Grill kabobs at high temperature (glowing coals, but no flame) until fish is medium rare. The sugar will caramelize the outside of the fish. Serve immediately. Do not overcook.
Coconut-Lime Fish Fillets with Mustard-Lime Sauce
- 1/4 cup mayonnaise
- 2 tsps Dijon mustard
- 2 Tbs lime juice
Mix all ingredients in a bowl. Heat oil to 350F. Drop from spoon into hot fat. Fry until golden.
- 1 egg beaten
- 1/3 cup unsweetened coconut flakes
- 1/3 cup coconut milk
- 3/4 cup fine breadcrumbs
- 1 teaspoon lime zest
- 2 lbs Mahi or Wahoo fillets
Preheat oven to 450F. Combine egg and milk in a shallow dish. Combine breadcrumbs, coconut flakes and lime zest in another shallow dish. Dip fillets in egg mixture, then dredge in coconut mixture. Arrange fillets on a lightly greased baking sheet. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until fish flakes easily. Serve with Mustard-Lime sauce.
- 1 lb ground bonita or other firm-fleshed fish
- 1/2 onion, chopped
- 1/2 cup mushrooms, chopped
- 1 tsp Worcestershire Sauce
- 1 egg
- 1/2 cup bread crumbs
- Salt & pepper to taste
Sauté onions and mushrooms in a bit of oil, remove from heat. In a bowl combine all ingredients then form into patties. Pan fry for approximately 4 minutes (2 minutes per side) being careful not to overcook. Serve on hamburger buns or with steamed rice.
- 1 lb fish
- 1/2 cup salad oil (1/4 cup for frying,
- 1/4 for dressing)
- 1/2 lb assorted green vegetables
- such as eggplant, cabbage, green beans, etc.
- 2 2-inch “fingers” fresh ginger, grated
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1 large onion, sliced
- 2 1/2 cups water
- 6 Tbs vinegar
- 1/2 tsp salt
Clean fish and slit in several places and add salt to slitted areas. Fry fish in salad oil and set aside. Cook the vegetables in the same pan to desired doneness. In a separate dish, place a layer of vegetables, then a layer of fish. Repeat until vegetables and fish are all used and set aside. In a separate pan, heat remaining 1/4 cup of oil adding ginger, onions and garlic and fry. Add vinegar and water to mixture; bring to boil and cook for about 5 minutes. Pour over vegetables and fish and let stand for about 5 to 10 minutes so the dressing can permeate the vegetables and fish. Serve hot or cold and enjoy.