Discovering Traditional Foods of Guam
By Toni Dabbs
Josephine's Chamorro Kitchen is a friendly neighborhood cafe with functional wooden tables and chairs. Its plain white walls are decorated with fans, hats and mats woven in the traditional style from pandanus, or coconut palm fronds.
This is my first day in Guam, the tiny Micronesia island situated 3,800 miles west of Hawaii and 1,500 miles south of Japan, and my escort Ben Palomo, a former senator in the Guam Legislature and director of public works, who now writes a column for the Pacific Daily News, is introducing me to Chamorro food.
The name Guam comes from the ancient Chamorro word "Guahan," meaning "we have." The Chamorro people arrived on Guam from the Malay Peninsula around 3000 BCE, and they occupied the island alone until Ferdinand Magellan landed there in 1521. Having survived invasions by the Spanish, the Japanese and the Americans, they still comprise 43 per cent of the island's population, and they have managed to retain their cultural identity, including language, customs and cuisine.
Josephine Cruz comes from the kitchen to greet us. She is an attractive Chamorro woman with graying hair pulled back from her face to reveal classic cheek bones. My first thought is: "How does she stay so slim when she's constantly preparing food?" She's bringing my lunch, Chicken Estufao (pieces of chicken stewed with tomatoes and onions, served with mounds of rice and a cucumber salad). Ben is having Morcizas (a chicken neck stuffed with chicken meat, pepper leaves, onions and garlic, tied at both ends and stewed in broth).
Josephine's, which is located in a small strip mall at the corner of Fahrenholt Avenue and Governer Carlos Camancho Road in the community of Tamuning, is a popular lunch spot with Chamorro office workers. The traditional menu also includes such favorites as Kadon Octopus (octopus stewed in coconut milk with onions and sweet peppers), Eskabeche (fresh fish marinated in vinegar and soy sauce) and Shrimp Kelaguen (minced shrimp mixed with lemon, onions, peppers and shredded coconut).
While we dine, Ben describes a Chamorro delicacy that no longer is available, Fruit Bat Soup. "The dish would have a strong aroma and flavor influenced by whatever fruit the bats had been eating," he explains. "But we enjoyed the dish too much, because the bats are now endangered on Guam. Just a small colony remains at the north end of the island, and anyone caught poaching is subject to a large fine and even a prison sentence."
He also tells me about Coconut Crab, which "tastes a bit like the coconuts it eats and can grow quite large. Islanders sometimes catch smaller ones and keep them in cages until they grow to a meatier size," he says, adding, "if they can keep them from escaping. My brother once caught one about 10 inches in diameter. He put it in a 30 gallon container, covered it with a board and put a concrete block on top. But it escaped. They have to be strong to rip through the shells of the coconuts."
After lunch, Ben takes me to Gef Pa'go, a replica of an ancient seaside village, with simple buildings made solely from natural materials. Docents in the different huts demonstrate the making of former essentials of everyday life. Margaret Blas explains how sea water is boiled to yield salt. Ann McKinnon shows how to make coconut candy. Fran Napti bakes bread in a brick and limestone oven. Allison McKinnon weaves small rice baskets, or Chamorro lunch pails, just the right size for one meal's worth of rice.
We also visit the gallery of the Council on the Arts and Humanities Agency, where a display of Chamorro artifacts includes agricultural implements and items used for food preparation, such as a coconut grater and a chocolate stirrer.
We end the day back in Agana, at the Chamorro Village Wednesday Night Market. Chamorro Village is a cluster of shops and restaurants, part cultural center and part public market, with vendors selling items ranging from Guam-made chocolates to fine arts and crafts to fresh produce. But on Wednesday night, it is transformed into a miniature fairground.
Stalls set up between buildings offer Chamorro treats such as Ahu (grated coconut boiled in sugar water) or Lumpia (vegetable egg roll dipped in garlic sauce) to eat on the spot and homemade Sweet Tuba (a drink made from the first sap of the young coconut tree) or hot sauce to take away. Most popular are the family operated barbecue booths, where Short Ribs, Chicken Kebobs and even squid are served hot off the grill.
As we make our way through the mostly Chamorro crowd, we pause several times to listen as musicians perform both traditional and popular songs and once to watch children taking rides on a water buffalo. Our last stop is a produce booth, where I select a few locally grown mangos for breakfast the next day.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Guam Visitors Bureau
1336-C Park Street
Alameda CA 94501
Ph: 1-800-873-4826 or 1-510-865-0366
by Toni Dabbs
Copyright 2001 by Toni Dabbs. This work, including photographs, is protected by copyright and may be used only for personal non-commercial purposes. All other rights are reserved, and commercial use is prohibited without permission of the author.