SOY, LEMON, CHILI AND COCONUT: THE TASTE OF CHAMORRO

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Popular dishes include red rice, chicken kelaguen, and ‘barbecue.’

By Joan Clarke Advertiser Food Editor

HONOLULU, Hawai‘i (July 19, 2000 – Honolulu Advertiser)---Hawai‘i’s multicultural mix includes a sizeable population of Chamorro people, the indigenous population of Guam, many whom will gather to enjoy a feast of Chamorran food Friday, in celebration of Guam’s Liberation Day. The menus will no doubt include such favorites as a lemony chicken dish rather like a dry ceviche, rice dyed bright red by achiote seeds and a light cake topped with pudding, similar to a trifle.

Felix Limtiaco, a civil engineer with his own consulting company in Hawai‘i, often prepares Chamorro specialties for friends. An avid cook, he has lived in the Islands since 1982 but was born and raised on Guam in Santa Rita, a village just beyond the main harbor of the 200-square-mile island.

Limtiaco grew up in a family of seven children; as the only boy among six sisters, he didn’t cook much. "My mom would probably say my favorite food as a child was Spam," said Limtiaco with a smile. "Straight out of the can with hot rice."

Like many Pacific island populations, including Hawai‘i, the people of Guam have relied on canned meats for protein ever since World War II. Spam, Vienna sausage, canned beef, tuna, sardines and salmon all have their following on the tables of Pacific Islanders. But there’s much more to Chamorro food.

Coconut is a vital ingredient in Chamorran cuisine, shredded or as coconut milk; it adds texture, flavor and sweetness to many dishes. "One of my jobs as a kid was to get coconuts, husk and grate them," said Limtiaco. "If I wanted the dish, I had to get the coconuts. It was difficult to find when I started cooking in college," said Limtiaco, who went to Notre Dame and Stanford universities.

Limtiaco’s childhood experience was evident as he deftly cracked open a couple of coconuts with several whacks with the back edge of a machete.

He mounted a weathered, low coconut-grating bench he brought from Guam, and began rhythmically scraping the meat out of the shell, running the half-coconut over the round-tipped grater attached to the front of the bench, producing fine white shreds of coconut meat that fell like snowflakes into a bowl.

Chicken And Coconut

This quick but largely abandoned method of grating coconut added more than just delightful fresh coconut flavor to a dish called kelaguen: The process was a reminder of a not-too-distant past when foods were always prepared this way, slowly, methodically and with a rhythm that was ritual in daily life.

Kelaguen is the signature dish of Guam, usually made with chicken, though it is also prepared with fresh fish, beef, shrimp and octopus. To prepare it, Limtiaco broiled boneless, skinless chicken breasts for a few minutes on each side until they were just lightly golden brown. "I like it a little crispy on the outside, but the inside should remain a little pink," he said.

Pink chicken breasts might sound a little scary, but kelaguen calls for lots of fresh lemon juice; the acid completes the cooking process just as lemon or lime juice would cook fish in ceviche or poison cru.

After cooking and cooling the chicken, Limtiaco chopped whole breasts in a food processor using short, on-and-off pulses to produce a fine chopped mound of white meat. Traditionally, of course, the chopping would be done by hand, but Limtiaco has bowed to the convenience of modern kitchen appliances in this step.

He then sprinkled fresh lemon juice over the chopped chicken, massaging it in with his hands. He let the mixture sit for a minute, tasted and added more lemon juice, repeating the process several times and using an amazing amount of juice. Chopped green onions and flecks of hot chili pepper came next, then the real flavor kicker: the grated coconut.

Again, Limtiaco massaged the chicken mixture, imbuing the flavors of lemon and coconut into the small pieces of chicken. What results is a texturally interesting dish: chewy chicken and crunchy coconut in a tart, but sweet, flavor balance that is refreshingly delicious. Kelaguen may be eating as is or rolled up in warm corn tortillas.

Main Ingredients

"My grandfather grew corn, so we would have it fresh or we’d grind it up and make fresh tortillas," said Limtiaco, pronouncing tortilla as "to-ritz-a." Corn, introduced by the Jesuits who settled on Guam in the 17th century, is included in many dishes, including a Guamanian-style corn soup.

Coconut as a main ingredient and flavor enhancer is paired with other foods familiar in Hawai‘i, such as taro leaves and breadfruit, as well as with beef and vegetables. Cakes, pies, ice cream confections are popular on Guam, too, according to "Real Guamanian Recipes" by Dorothy Horn, a longtime resident of Guam.

Fresh reef fish and stews were among other foods prepared regularly in the Limtiaco household. Barbecued beef and chicken, red rice and eggplant with coconut milk are among Limtiaco’s favorite preparations.

"Any Chamorro party will feature a barbecue of beef and chicken marinated together in lemon juice, soy and onions," said Limtiaco, displaying his about-to-be-grilled tub of beef and chicken. To the basic trinity of Chamorro seasonings – soy, lemon and onions – Limtiaco adds beer, garlic, ginger, and some ground coriander and cumin.

Red rice is another signature of the Chamorro table; medium-grain rice cooked in a red liquid from achiote seeds, also known as annatto seeds. The seeds are soaked in water and pressed to extract their color; the resulting red liquid is strained and used in the rice cooking water.

"Natija (pronounced na-titz-a) is my favorite dessert," said Limtiaco, who showed off a plate of sponge cake topped with vanilla cream, redolent of cinnamon. He nodded approval as he sampled his not-too-sweet but unctuously creamy dessert, which played well against the lemony flavors of the main dish.

Finally Dessert

Fiestas are an essential part of life in Guam, where most of the population is Catholic. "Every village has a patron saint or two and fiestas are held to honor them," said Limtiaco. "Weddings, known as fandangos, and christenings are fiesta time, too."

Fiesta means food in Guam and lots of it spread out on a buffet table.

"It starts out with the starches: breadfruit, tapioca, red rice, rolls," said Felix’s wife Ruth, a public relations consultant in Hawai‘i who lived on Guam for 14 years. "Then there’s eggplant with coconut milk, fish escabeche and croquettes. Potato salad with eggs and olives, smeared with mayonnaise on top and decorated with black olives and pimentos, is always on the buffet.

"Barbecued meat and chicken, lechon (roast pig), taro leaves in coconut milk, kelaguen, sashimi follow. Pancit, lumpia, adobo, empandas and tortillas are the Spanish/Filipino influence that make their way onto the buffet, too.

"Then there’s dessert: natija and red velvet cake are always there."

RECIPES

By Joan Clarke Advertiser Food Editor

Soy, lemon and onions flavor Guam’s food

Chamorran food relies on simple ingredients; soy, lemon juice and onions are the flavor trinity of the table. Coconut is also an important ingredient, providing a sweet flavor and interesting texture to dishes.

 

Kelaguen Manok Chicken Kelaguen

6 chicken breasts, boneless, skinless 2 cups freshly squeezed lemon juice 3 green onions Salt to taste Fresh chili peppers, chopped, to taste 1 cup freshly grated coconut

Rinse and dry chicken breasts; place on a baking sheet or broiler pan. Broil chicken a few minutes on each side until just cooked (traditionalists leave chicken a little pink in the middle). Remove from broiler and let cool.

Chop chicken into small pieces in food processor or by hand. Place chopped chicken in bowl and add lemon juice, a half-cup at a time, mixing well and tasting so that it is not too tart. Add green onions, salt, chili peppers and freshly grated coconut. Mix well; refrigerate for at least an hour before serving.

 

Barbecue Marinade

1 cup soy sauce 2 onions, chopped 2 tablespoons lemon juice

Mix ingredients and marinate beef or chicken for 3-4 hours. This recipe will be sufficient for about 2 pounds of meat. Barbecue or grill as desired.

 

Red Rice

2 tablespoons achiote seeds ½ cup warm water ½ teaspoon salt 2 tablespoons oil ½ cup chopped onions 2 cups rice, washed 2 cups water

Soak achiote seeds in warm water for at least 30 minutes. Rub and press seeds to extract color. Add salt and dissolve; strain liquid into a small bowl.

Heat oil in a saucepan. Add onions and sauté until translucent. Add rice, achiote water and 2 cups water to pan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 15-20 minutes, or until rice is done. Serve 4-6.

Note: Achiote is the rusty-red, musky-flavored seed of an annatto tree. It is used to color butter, margarine, cheese and smoked fish. Achiote is available in the Asian foods sections of supermarkets.

 

Eggplant with Coconut Milk

6 long eggplant 1 sweet onion, sliced Lemon juice Salt to taste About 1 cup coconut milk Fresh chili peppers, chopped, to taste

Grill eggplant over medium heat or under broiler until skin is charred and flesh is soft. Cool and peel; place flesh in a bowl and mash. Add sliced onion, lemon juice and salt. Add coconut milk, balancing the sweetness of the milk with the tartness of the lemon juice. Add chopped chili peppers to taste. Serve at room temperature. Serves 4-6.

 

Finadene

10 to 12 chili peppers 1/3 cup soy sauce ½ cup lemon juice ½ cup chopped onions (optional)

Mash chili peppers. Mix all ingredients together, bottle and use as a condiment

 

Natija

1 8-inch sponge cake 1 2/3 cups cold water 1 (12-ounce) can evaporated milk 6 tablespoons sugar ¼ cup cornstarch 2 teaspoons vanilla 2 tablespoons butter 2 eggs, beaten

Cinnamon

Slice sponge cake into 1-inch-thick pieces and spread on bottom of a platter. Measure 1 1/3 cups water into a saucepan and heat until almost boiling. Add milk and sugar and bring to a simmer. Mix remaining 1/3 cup water with corn starch and vanilla and gradually add to milk mixture. Cook for a few minutes until thick. Remove from heat and add butter. Stir in beaten eggs slowly, whisking vigorously. Pour on top of sponge cake. Sprinkle generously with cinnamon.

About cakes

Stiffly beaten egg whites are the common denominator in sponge, angel food and chiffon cakes. But each one is slightly different.

A sponge cake relies on egg yolks and sugar, maybe a little butter and leavening for its airiness and texture. Angel food cakes do not contain egg yolks or any other fat; the air beaten into egg whites and steam make angel food cakes rise. Chiffon cakes contain liquid fat such as oil; baking powder is usually used for leavening along with stiffly beaten egg whites.

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