Magical culinary tour of Guam's fiesta foods
From Filipino spring rolls to sweet-and-sour fish from Spain to raw tuna a la Japan and sweet or savory turnovers of every ilk, there’s a cornucopia of influences behind Guam’s cuisine. Yet the Chamorro twist on “lumpia,” “escabeche,” sashimi and the empanada respectively make their local incarnations distinctly Guamanian.
Then there’s the plethora of spicy and tangy citrus-saturated meat and seafood “kelaguens.” Not to mention coconut-milk-simmered savory soups and stews such as beef “tinaktak” or chicken “chalakiles.” In fact, the only challenge greater than what to try first can be where to try it. Literally.
Let’s face it, you won’t find much downhome Chamorro cooking in the swank eateries of Tumon Bay’s Hotel Row. The fiesta table – that hub of every local family, church and village special occasion – is the best place to find the real deal.
Still waiting for that invite? Too shy to crash a fiesta? No worries.
Now there’s another option, thanks to the recently opened Guam Food Tours: The Fiesta Plate Tour. As the name implies, the tour promises some of the best classical Chamorro dishes typically enjoyed at a local fiesta.
The brainchild of Leslie Travis and Conrad Berg, Guam’s latest foray into culinary tourism aims to put the palates of newcomers and local foodies alike in touch with authentic Chamorro dishes prepared by those in the know.
“The best place to try Guamanian cuisine is at a fiesta,” says Travis, the general manager of the operation. “Inspired by our village fiestas, we have designed a tour featuring our best local dishes, unique to our island, and prepared with love by cooks using recipes passed down through generations.”
The three-and-a-half-hour tour takes guests on a magical mystery taste tour in a 15-passenger van. They sample the culinary creations of local vendors in Dededo, Tamuning, Mongmong-Toto-Maite, Hagatna, Santa Rita and Nimitz Hill.
The five-course menu includes starters and appetizers, the main course and dessert – each in a scenic village location. A guide is on hand to explain the scenic attractions of each village as well as the food and the culture behind it.
Participants can sample popular Chamorro dishes such as kelaguen, spicy “kaddon pika” chicken, red-and-white “gisu” tamales, tinaktak, “bunelos aga” banana doughnuts and “latiya” custard cake. It’s all rounded off with a sampling of local pineapple or sugarcane at Chamorro Village.
“I think the tour is a great way for foodies to get the best local foods all in one place,” says Lenny Fejeran, owner and manager Pika’s Café.
Guam Visitors Bureau spokesman Josh Tyquiengco agrees, adding that it’s a great way to get to know the island. “It’s a wonderful introduction to Chamorro cuisine,” he says.
According to Travis, the tour menu is designed carefully with food that represents the best traditional dishes that will please a majority of guests. Vendors are selected for their quality products and commitment to making the best food. They range from Pika’s Café in Tumon to Bokka Guam in Chamorro Village to Chode Mart, a small snack shop in Hagatna selling pre-made foods such as empanadas, guyurias and Spam dishes.
“Though our food vendors are licensed to prepare food commercially, most of them do not have storefronts,” Travis says, adding that they also adhere to stricter local standards. “We expected you to hand-grate coconut for our kelaguen, and we can taste whether you used the right kind of wood to smoke our ‘tinala katne’ (dried beef).
“People have strong opinions about who makes the best version of their favorite local dish,” she says, “and often they insist the best cook is from their village, likely a family member.”
In addition to its Fiesta Plate Tour, Guam Food Tours is in the process of cooking up custom tours such as an American Food Tour and a Chef’s Tour, which include adult beverages, according to Travis.
“We are hoping to launch these tours in the next month,” she says.
So, what got this fledgling endeavor started?
According to Travis, an attorney from Agat Village, busing foodies from place to place to show off the local cuisine is all the rage throughout Asia these days. In fact, she and her partner Berg, a bank manager from Talofofo Village, had experienced a food tour in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, in November that left a spectacular taste in their mouths. It only made sense to provide the service here on Guam.
“My food experiences from around the world forms an important part of the memories of my travels,” she says. “Even looking at our photographs of these dishes makes us instantly nostalgic for the cities we visited, the buzz of their streets, the smell of their markets, and the interesting stories of the people we met.”
Travis adds that they also want people visiting Guam to experience the same genuine and meaningful connection with the local culture through food. In fact, it’s their mission.
“Everyone who works at Guam Food Tours cares deeply about the food; and we want to represent Guam well,” she says.
The tour teaches visitors about local history, flavor profiles and the evolution of Guam’s cuisine, according to Travis.
“Even though (our food) is influenced by other cultures, it is unique and delicious,” she says. “You’ll see a lot of dishes on the tour that may seem familiar if you have had Filipino or Spanish-influenced cuisine, but Guam really did take these dishes and adapt them based on local ingredients and tastes.”
In short, the Fiesta Plate Tour is design to offer a true taste of Guam.
“We hope we can help you glimpse a part of Guam you have never seen,” she adds. “And that when you leave, you will remember one or two special dishes that you had during your stay.”