More than just desserts: Snacks that Guam is sweet on
Everyone likes dessert, right? Well, now that you are “where America’s day begins” – you are in luck. Layered with rich Chamorro tradition, infused with a zest for fusion and topped with tourist-tantalizing restaurant and hotel industry, Guam is a virtual dessert tray of sweet options.
No matter what you choose – from “bonelos” (yam donuts), “mado’ya” (banana fritters) and banana lumpia to “konsetba” (candied papaya), “guyuria” (coconut cookies) and “champalado” (chocolate rice pudding), there is something to satisfy every sweet tooth on island.
There are perennial favorites such as “latiya,” a custard topped sponge cake dusted with cinnamon; green coconut “manha” meringue pie; and coconut candy. Those hankering for something a little more exotic can indulge in desserts like “kalamai,” a pink rice custard made with coconut milk, or “apigigi,” young coconut cooked with tapioca in banana leaves.
If some of these traditional Chamorro sweets seem a little “out there,” it’s because many of them – or their influences – come from, well, out there.
“Guam sweets are special and unique because they combine the flavors of many different cultures on Island,” says Carla Vy, Hilton Guam Resort & SPA’s marketing coordinator. “From local favorites like coconut candy and latiya, to international favorites fused with the unique flavors of Guam, like taro cheesecake.”
It’s something that several foodies and chefs like PROA restaurant Guam’s Raul Cordero agree on. The executive pastry chef says that like much of the island’s indigenous cuisine, its traditional sweets reflect various cultural influences, from Guam’s 16th to 19th century Spanish Era to the influx of Filipino immigrants during and after that period.
“Some examples of these are bonelos, latiya (Spanish), flan (Spanish/Filipino), banana lumpia (Filipino), coconut candy (Vietnamese) and ‘rosketti’ (a Spanish/South American cookie),” says Cordero.
This sweet cross-cultural fusion of flavors is by no means confined to the past. Thanks to a healthy tourism industry, with an even healthier appetite, local chefs regularly serve up Chamorro desserts with a gourmet twist – as well as gourmet classics with a taste of Guam.
“There are many stores and restaurants in Guam that sell some of the local dessert varieties daily,” says Peter Duenas, executive chef and owner of Meskla Chamoru Fusion Bistro. The dessert menu at Meskla, however, created by this classically trained Chamorro chef, is a testament to gourmet fusion with items like: banana-chocolate lumpia ala mode, champaladu crème brule, and red velvet cheesecake.
Similarly, Proa’s signature dessert item draws locals and tourists alike.
“We try to use ‘local’ flavor profiles and sensibilities with modern cuisine and techniques. … The best example of this philosophy is our taro cheesecake” says Cordero. “It is a modern dessert, but here we showcase local flavors. It is our most popular item and this can only be found in Proa.
“Tourists seem to enjoy takes on classic desserts with local flair,” he adds.
Many local favorites, such as “pastit,” baked turnovers filled with pumpkin or papaya jam, and “buchi-buchi,” their deep-fried counterparts, lend well to the Chamorro fusion phenomena.
“The combination of cultures and flavors from around the world really makes the possibilities endless,” Vy says.
Sometimes necessity can be the catalyst for familiar as well as innovative takes on classic Chamorro treats. Army Lt. Col. Annette “Annie” Merfalen, a Guam native stationed at Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, Colo., uses both to bring the familiar flavors of home to the family’s fiesta table as well as to the rest of the world through Annie’s Chamorro Kitchen, her popular recipe blog (www.AnniesChamorroKitchen.com).
“My favorite desserts to make and eat are latiya, rosketti, pastit, manha pie and ahu (a sweet dessert drink made with green coconuts),” she says. “But because I live in the mainland U.S., some of the fresh ingredients – like fresh green coconuts, or ‘manha’ – are not readily available.”
Although Merfalen says she prefers to only make manha pie when she’s visiting Guam where fresh manha is plentiful, her online recipe does allow for substituting it with the canned variety. It’s a tactic that works better with some classic Chamorro desserts than others.
“Pumpkin turnovers are a favorite anytime, but especially around the Thanksgiving holiday. Luckily we can use canned pumpkins to make the delicious turnovers year round,” she says, adding there are always one or two deserts at her family barbecues. “It just would not be a complete Chamorro barbeque without our beloved island sweets to remind us of home.”
In fact, that is what inspired Merfalen to start her blog about a year ago. It was not only to bring a taste of Guam to her Colorado home, but to pass her Chamorro recipes on to her daughters who she teaches to cook, just like her mother taught her.
It’s something that Meskla’s Duenas, can relate to.
“I learned how to make coconut candy when I was 6 years old when my grandmother was making coconut milk for a soup dish by incorporating a little water and freshly grated coconut meat – massaging vigorously and finally, wrapping it in a cloth, squeezing all of the coconut cream out of it,” he said. “Since then, I have made it many times throughout the years and have taught quite a few others how to make it. It is not only a simple process, but kids love it and it can always be passed down through the generations.”
That simple hands-on approach, along with good friends and family, just might be what gives such island sweets that authentic taste of Guam.
“On Guam, our social gatherings always mean good food – desserts included,” Duenas says. “So I have to say that when there are desserts and local food, in general, everyone is going to have a great time.”