The 'Kelaguen' creation story
Editor’s note: Simply put, “kelaguen” (pronounced kel-uh-guwen) is chopped chicken, meat, or seafood prepared with lemon juice. The concept is not exclusively Guamanian, but locals have their own versions that truly embody “A Taste of Guam.” Try it while on island – you’ll be glad you did!
Kelaguen is based on the “cooking” property of lemon juice, whereby raw fish is “cooked” by the acidity of the lemon. This food preparation method is common to many Pacific islands people. It probably originated in Southeast Asia and was spread through migrations of people throughout the Pacific.
The first people likely used the kelaguen method primarily with fish. In the early 1900s Georg Fritz, who served as the German District Officer of Saipan, described a Chamorro dish “fala” that is similar to the modern version of fish kelaguen.
The banana flower (fafalu), when chopped, soaked in saltwater and boiled, is also prepared as a kelaguen dish; and probably was used in ancient times. Other seafood such as clams and shrimp are prepared in this manner.
As meats were introduced by the Spanish administration in the 17th century, the principle of “cooking” in lemon juice adapted to the properties of these new foods. Today, Spam has become an accepted kelaguen dish, especially as a beer chaser.
Chamorros are known for kelaguen making skills and this dish is considered a signature local dish. Kelaguen’s popularity is evidenced when it is served as an appetizer or as part of the salad bar in several restaurants throughout the island whether or not they specialize in local food. One Chamorro family is known for preparing chicken kelaguen wrapped in taco-shell shaped “titiyas” or a Mexican tortilla and marketed at local mom and pop stores and other establishments.
Kelaguen prepared on Guam uses a combination of lemon juice, salt, and hot peppers. The Spanish introduced hot pepper to the Marianas. Chamorros had the knowledge of how to make sea salt.
Grated fresh coconut is often added to the recipe, especially to chicken and fish kelaguen. Deer meat and beef are prepared raw, and “cooked” in lemon juice. Chicken is barbecued (grilled over a charcoal or wood fire) or boiled, then chopped, and lemon juice and salt added.
Octopus and squid are boiled prior to chopping. Grated coconut is usually, but not always, added to chicken and seafood. Some chefs use “lechen niyok” (coconut cream) instead of grated coconut to prepare certain types of seafood kelaguen.
At Chamorro fiestas, Kelaguen is placed on the table according to the protein ingredients used. Chicken kelaguen is usually placed after the barbecued chicken and other meats. Seafood is usually grouped together, after the barbecued fish. In large parties, it has become stylish to have a separate table with various kinds of seafood and kelaguen. (Kelaguen Spam is not considered a party food. It would remain in the back kitchen for beer drinkers to enjoy.)
Variations of Guam's signature dish
The following recipe will instruct you on how to prepare kelaguen made of seafood, venison or beef or chicken.
- Choice of protein
- Lemon juice
- Hot peppers
- Onions, diced (Green onions may be used to garnish the dish)
- Coconut, grated (optional)
Chop the selected raw protein – seafood, venison, or beef. It is prudent to pour boiling water over the seafood to rinse any contaminants. Venison and beef should be squeezed under running hot water to remove some of the excess blood. If you want to prepare chicken kelaguen, debone and cook unseasoned chicken on a barbeque grill. Octopus should be boiled to firm up the tissue. Mix the chopped meat or seafood with enough lemon juice to penetrate the mixture, and keep mixing the raw protein until it looks “cooked”. Add salt and hot pepper to taste. Add onions and/or green onions. Add grated fresh coconut to chicken or shrimp in small amounts until a flavor balance is reached. Coconut should be only about ¼ volume compared to the protein. Either grated coconut or lechen niyok (coconut cream) may be added to fish. Octopus is usually prepared without coconut. Kelaguen tastes best after it has been refrigerated for a few hours to alalow the flavors to blend.
– Judy Flores, Guampedia.com
This recipe once won first place at the Maila Ya Ta Fan Boka cooking competition.
- 15 lbs whole chicken fryers (approximately 4 to 5 chickens)
- 10 limes
- 5 bunches green onions, finely chopped
- 2 lbs red bell peppers
- 2 lbs green bell peppers
- Donne peppers, to taste
- Sea salt, as needed
- Preheat oven to 350F. Bake whole chickens until done.
- While chicken is baking; chop onions, hot peppers and squeeze lime juice. Set aside in separate non-metallic containers.
- Sear or burn the bell peppers until skin is charred and blackened. Place in large bowl and cover with plastic wrap for several minutes. This will make it easier to remove the skins. Peel and seed peppers, chop and set aside
- When chicken is done, remove from the oven and allow to cool. Remove meat from the chicken and chop into small pieces.
- Combine first five ingredients and season with hot peppers and sea salt as desired.
Yield: Enough for a small fiesta. This recipe maybe scaled up or down as desired.
– Washington High School/Guam Community College Tourism Team 2, GuamDiner.com
- 1 lb flank or ribeye steak, chopped
- 1 cup of coconut (grated)
- 2 tsp fresh green onion, chopped
- 5 tsp powdered lemon juice
- 4 small chili peppers
- 1 tsp salt
After chopping the beef, press out as much of the meat juices as possible. Mix remaining ingredients in a bowl. Chill before serving. Serve with finandene sauce and tatiyas (tortillas).
– Dorothy Horn, GuamDiner.com
- 3 or 4 red peppers, crushed
Cut tuna into small, thin pieces and place in a large bowl. Add onions, salt and peppers.
Mix well. Add lemon and continue to mix. Place in refrigerator to chill or eat as is.
– Lourdes C. Scroggs and Belle Gumataotao, Guampedia.com