Culture Tuesday: an Exploration of Guamanian Cuisine

Culture Tuesday is a weekly column in which Best of Vegan Editor Samantha Onyemenam explores different cultures’ cuisines across the globe through a plant-based and vegan lens. In today’s column, she is exploring vegan Guamanian cuisine. 

Culture Tuesday – Vegan Guamanian Cuisine

Guamanian cuisine is the food of Guam, an island nation located in Micronesia – the Western Pacific. The original cultural cuisine, also often referred to as the CHamoru cuisine, or the cuisine of indigenous Guamanians is based on the foods that are native to Guam which could be grown and gathered on the island or harvested from the ocean around it. These foods include annatto seeds (from the achiote plant), arrowroot (gabgab), bananas (chotda), breadfruit (seedless lemmai and seeded dokdok), coconuts (niyok), ginger (asno), Federico palm nuts (fadang), papaya, rice, seaweed, sugarcane (tupu), taro/cocoyam (suni), wild yams (gado’), and yams (dago and nika). 

In more modern times, the Guamanian cuisine has been a reflection of historical events through the incorporation and fusion of the CHamoru cuisine with that of other nations.

Cooking practices involved the use of cooking pits/earth ovens (holes dug in the ground) lined with hot stones and rocks then covered with leaves and earth. These earth ovens are also referred to as ‘um’ and ‘chahan’ on the island. The earth ovens trap heat around the food creating cooking results similar to baking, steaming, and even smoking. CHamorus (ancient indigenous Guamanians) also cooked food by roasting them on the same embers (peha) used for the earth ovens or they were cooked by boiling using earthenware pots.

In more modern times, the Guamanian cuisine has been a reflection of historical events through the incorporation and fusion of the CHamoru cuisine with that of other Pacific Islands, East and Southeast Asian nations, Mesoamerican, and European nations. Emphasis is on Mexican and Spanish influences as a result of the 200+ years of Spanish colonialism both in Mexico and Guam that led to the introduction of new crops and cooking techniques. However, present-day American and Caribbean influences can also be seen in the Guamanian cuisine of today. The American influences began at the end of World War II due to how easy some of them were to make through the incorporation of American processed and packaged (usually canned) foods.

Culture Tuesday: an Exploration of Guamanian Cuisine
Vegan CHamoru Fiesta Plate. Image credit: @theearthkitchen. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Staple Starch – Rice

The staple starch for Guamanians is rice. Rice is grown on the island and husked using wooden mortars and pestles (lusong and falu’, respectively). Generally, the rice is cooked in boiling water to make hineksa’. This is then used to make dishes such as atole (a rice and grated coconut stew/drink), hineksa’ aga’ga (red rice), rice soup, alåguan (rice porridge), empanådas, hineksa’ sinagan (pyramid-shaped rice cakes), hufot (circular rice cakes), and potu (tuba rice cakes). Hineksa’ is also used as an accompaniment to stews such as tinaktak and a thickener for dishes such as chalakilis.

Hineksa’ aga’ga, or red rice, is one of the most popular and symbolic dishes in the CHamoru culture. It is made by cooking short-grained rice in water that has been dyed reddish-orange by soaking annatto seeds in it. For additional flavor, vegetable stock can be used in place of water and other ingredients can be added to the dish during the cooking process. These ingredients often include onions, garlic, and other vegetables. Despite the importance of red rice in Guam, it is a dish inspired by Mexican cuisine as the achiote plant from which the annatto seed is obtained, was introduced to CHamorus during the Spanish colonial period.

Despite the importance of red rice in Guam, it is a dish inspired by Mexican cuisine.

Potu are rice cakes flavored with tuba – fermented sap from the coconut tree. They are believed to be one of the foods introduced to the Guamanians by Filipino immigrants during the colonial era. However, despite the various ways potu is made in the Philippines (where it is referred to as, ‘puto’), CHamorus prepare potu in a simple manner. To make potu, they make rice flour by grinding long-grain white rice which has been soaked for, at least, two hours then rinsed. The rice flour is then combined with equal amounts of sugar, sweet tuba, and water and left to sit overnight. This mixture is cooked into by steaming it in stainless steel cups known as, ‘poto cups,’ or baked although the former is more common practice.

Vegan CHamoru Empanådas. Image credit: @flouredframe. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

CHamoru Empanådas are essentially crispy half-moon-shaped pastries filled with toasted rice. However, the rice in the filling is in powder form. The filling is actually chalakilis, a CHamoru soup, with more rice added to make the soup thicker and spreadable when filling the empanada dough.

Of Greatest Use – Coconuts

Coconut, or niyok, is the most used plant in Guam and, like rice, one of the most important. The tree is used in its entirety by Guamanians and has been for about 4,000 years. Its flesh is used to make coconut milk, butter, and oil which are used to make dishes tinaktak, gollai hågun suni, and chalakilis, while its water is used as a hydrating drink. The sap from the tree is fermented to make tuba (one of the key ingredients in potu) as well as coconut molasses and sugar. The flesh of the coconut is also often grated using a kamyo to make dishes such as atole, kẻlaguen, coconut candy, and åhu. Other parts of the tree are used for aesthetic, recreational, hat-making, cleaning, packaging, toolmaking, and construction purposes.

The coconut tree is used in its entirety by Guamanians and has been for about 4,000 years.

As aforementioned, chalakilis is a soup. It is influenced by the Mexican chilaquiles. However, CHamoru chilakilis does not include stale tortillas. Ancient CHamoru people repurposed the dried rice stuck to the bottom and sides of pots to make chilakilis while present-day CHamoru people simply toast the rice prior to grinding. Onions and garlic are sauteed then a stock/broth, potatoes, seasonings, and annatto seeds are added to them. This mixture is boiled until the potatoes soften then the ground rice is added to the mixture and cooked thoroughly before the soup is thinned using coconut milk and the dish is served as is or with a chicken substitute (often tofu) for a more authentic feel.

Culture Tuesday: an Exploration of Guamanian Cuisine
Vegan CHamoru Chalakilis Soup. Image credit: @flouredframe. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Kẻlaguen is a term that refers to foods cooked using the acidity of lemons. These dishes are usually meat-based. However, plant-based Guamanians have made vegan-friendly versions of kẻlaguen using common meat substitutes such as tofu. To make an authentic kẻlaguen, the prepped meat (which, in this case, would be tofu or another suitable substitute), is marinated in a picking marinade consisting of lemon juice, onions, chili peppers, and seasonings. Whereas in traditional CHamoru kẻlaguen, the lemon juice cooks the ingredients, in a plant-based kẻlaguen, it solely adds flavor and acidity to the dish. The finished kẻlaguen is then eaten as is cold, or it is served with rice or titiyas (a flatbread similar to tortillas).

Culture Tuesday: an Exploration of Guamanian Cuisine
Tofu Kelaguen. Image credit: @theearthkitchen. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Vegan Guamanian Recipe – Gollai Hågun Suni by The Earth Kitchen

Gollai hågun suni is a creamy CHamoru side dish made predominantly of taro leaves (often substituted with spinach) and coconut milk. It is traditionally vegan-friendly. With this recipe, Debbie (of TheEarthKitchenBlog.com and @theearthkitchen on Instagram) shows you how to make a simple yet flavourful and healthy gollai hågun suni which can serve as a great accompaniment to a range of dishes as well as a meal on its own.

Culture Tuesday: an Exploration of Guamanian Cuisine

Click here for the full recipe.

Author: Samantha Onyemenam.

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Culture Tuesday: an Exploration of Guamanian Cuisine

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