Meat, chicken and fish marinated and grilled.
The popular ritual of modern-day Chamorro barbecuing (which is technically grilling) is relatively recent in Guam history. Chamorro barbecue, as we know it today, began with frequency in the early 1960s when it became easy to purchase packaged meats and poultry. Post- World War II food items, such as butchered pre-packaged meats, were shipped to Guam to provide for the large number of military personnel. Those with access to the military commissary were able to get the meats and chicken – which would become choice for barbecue – at a much lower cost than at local civilian stores.
The act of cooking meat over fire, however, in preparation for a celebration has likely gone on for thousands of years. The concept of “barbecue” was different in earlier millennia. The Chamorro word for cooking over fire, tunu, is an ancient Chamorro word that is shared with other Pacific island peoples who populated the Pacific thousands of years ago. On Guam, there was no beef, pork, chicken or deer. These animals were introduced to Guam in the Spanish-colonization era beginning in the 17th century. Before this, Chamorros preferred seafood and other protein-sources such as turtle, birds and fruit bat (fanihi), but were gradually indoctrinated to the new food sources.
Flavorings were from salt extracted from seawater, coconut cream, lemon and mango’ (yellow ginger or tumeric). Historical accounts state that as meat was introduced into the Chamorro diet, it was cooked with the method used to prepare dishes of seafood, roots and tubers in a chåhan (to cook in an underground pit) common to Pacific Islands. Food was covered with leaves directly on coals or suspended over a fire. During the Latte Period thick-walled clay pots emerged, according to archeological records, that were suitable for cooking. It is likely that as meat was introduced into the Chamorro diet, it was stewed along with starches in these vessels.
For gupot siha (festive events), where large quantities of food had to be cooked, it is likely that the preferred method of cooking was chinåhan (a derivation of the word chåhan). French explorer Louis Claude de Freycinet, who came to Guam in 1819 described the chinåhan as follows:
A layer of flat stones, then some wood that was dry, and then some small stones or pebbles, were so placed to form a bed at the bottom of a whole, dug in the ground and of a size suitable for the intended purpose. When the wood was reduced to embers, all the smoking pieces that could be found were carefully removed from the pit with the aid of sticks. The little stones, which were by now extremely hot, were then spread out as evenly as possible over the hot pit bottom, and the object to be cooked was placed on them. Finally, everything was covered with large leaves, then with more hot stones, and finally with earth, so that no steam could escape.
Cooking by chåhan likely began to decline once European traders brought in metal cooking pots. However some families continued the practice up through World War II.
The Spanish colonization in the 17th century brought many new food choices. During this era, beef, pork, chicken and venison were added to the Chamorro diet along with new fruits, vegetables, spices and foreign methods of food preparation.
Hotno: During the Spanish and early American era, pork and beef became important foods for celebrations. When large animals were slaughtered, it was usually for a fandango or fiesta and the meat would be divided up for various uses. If the family was fortunate enough to have one of the large Spanish-style hotno (oven) it would be used to cook the largest pieces of beef and even whole pigs.
Na’lagu : After World War II, a method for cooking large pieces of meat was to make a pot roast. This consisted of taking a large piece or pieces of pork or beef and cooking them in large pots over an open flame. Some families acquired large galley-sized pots that were sold as US Navy surplus and these remain treasured possessions. Innards, blood and other extra parts of the pig were usually made into fritada, the fattiest parts were made into lard (mantika), and ribs were made into soups and stews.
Tinala’: One of the most common methods of meat preparation in the days before electricity was tinala’ or drying, which was used for beef and venison. Since there was little refrigeration until the 1950s, meat had to be preserved if it was not to be consumed immediately. This process involved slaughtering and cleaning the animal and then cutting the meat into strips and salting it before drying it in the open air. According to some oral histories, some said that included suspending meat in jungle areas away from houses was best for drying meat because there was a lack of flies in jungled areas, while another method was to dry mean on roofing tins laid on the ground. After World War II, when tin roofs became more common, the latter method was often used. Drying was sped up by smoking the meat by suspending it over a low fire on a metal wire.
Another process that helped preserve meat was to soak it in salt and either lemon or vinegar for one or two days and then smoke it until dry. Whichever method was used, the dried strips of meat were then rolled up and placed into 5-gallon biskuchu (biscuits) cans that were sealed. If this process was done correctly, the meat would be good for several months, but would be monitored to ensure that worms or bugs did not infest the contents.
Tunu: When heating tinala’ katne (dried beef) or when cooking fresh meat in large quantities a common method was to build a large fire with ifit (ifil) or agao and wait until the fire was reduced to pinigan (charcoal). Coconut husks were sometimes added to provide a unique flavor. The meat was then placed on the hot coals and turned until done.
The typical marinade consists of ingredients such as black pepper, onions and vinegar which were introduced shortly after the Americans arrived on Guam in 1898. Other ingredients such as soy sauce were brought later by Japanese merchants, and garlic powder at an even later date in recent times. Red peppers (donne), tuba vinegar (from fermented coconut sap introduced by Filipinos), lemon and green onions became important ways to flavor meat in stews (estufao) and soups (sopas or kådu).
Before the war, barbecued meat was often available at the fiesta table. Much of the cooking was done by women, along with other dishes that were prepared in the outside kitchen. In the 1960s, when large quantities of spare ribs, cases of chicken and other frozen meat from the mainland became readily available, barbecuing would become a much more important part of the party preparation and it would become a job of men. Preparing the meat also became more complex as new spices, sauces and vegetables became available on Guam.
At modern-day Chamorro gatherings, various kinds of barbecued meat have become staples of the table. After passing the starches, one probably comes across and array of barbecued chicken, short ribs, spare ribs, brisket, tinala’ katne, pork belly, turkey tails, fish and various other cuts of meat and proteins. The favorite marinade for these meats is usually some combination of soy sauce, vinegar, salt, black pepper, lemon, garlic powder, and onions, plus whatever secret ingredients the cook wishes to add.
For most barbecued meat dishes, preparation begins the night before a party or early in the morning when meat is placed in marinade. Then the meat is ready for grilling. Contemporarily, some outdoor kitchens include built-in concrete barbecue areas but many people prefer the charcoal or gas-powered store-bought grills brought on by modernization and convenience. The island favorite is probably the 55- gallon metal drum (tanke), either standing or cut lengthwise. A favorite fuel is the ever present tangantangan (Leucaena glauca) but some barbecuers take the extra effort to find slower burning woods like gago (Polynesian ironwood, Casuarina equisetifolia) or ahgao (false elder, Premna gaudichaudii).
When the fire is ready, the ritual of cooking the meat begins. Plastic containers (usually Tupperware) and in the case of large fiestas, coolers filled with marinated meat is loaded on to grills as designated barbecuers squint trying to avoid the ever-shifting smoke and heat. Meat is constantly turned until cooked and then cut and placed methodically – for aesthetic pursposes and presentation – into serving dishes.
While the work can be exhausting, the men may prefer it to other types of party preparation such as making party favors, setting up tables or decorating påla påla siha (canopies), which is routinely dictated by women. The barbecuers’ job is rewarded with the ease of consumption of cans of ice cold carbonated beverages and the opportunity to chesa (eat appetizers from) the meat hot off the grill dipped in fina’denne’.
Placement on table
Barbecue is placed in the toche section, second only to the åggon (startch) section which goes at the head of the table. The toche section is as placed in the following order: chicken, beef, pork and fish or seafood.
* Tanya M. Champaco Mendiola contributed to this entry
Spareribs Barbecue Marinade
1 case spareribs
1 large onion, sliced
2 garlic bulbs, chopped
3 cups soysauce
1 ½ cups vinegar
1 cup ketchup
Black pepper to taste
Chefs may add preferred ingredients and adjust the ones provided above to personal tastes. This recipe for a case of spareribs can be used for steaks as well.
Mix all ingredients in a large container and add meat of choice. The longer meats are allowed to sit in marinade, the more flavorful the meat will be. Remove meat from marinade and barbecue (grill).
*Recipe by Aline A. Yamashita