Hineksa’ Aga’ga’: Red Rice
Short-grained rice prepared with water colored from soaking achote (annatto) seeds, which gives it its usually deep orange color.
Rice has been an important part of life in the Marianas for centuries. Archaeologists recovered pottery sherds with rice impressions at different archaeological sites on Guam; one sherd had a radiocarbon date ranging from AD 1325-1491. But its role in Marianas life has changed over time. During the Ancient CHamoru period of Marianas history, rice was a ceremonial food, used in drinks and foods meant for special occasions. In the past 400 years, as the Marianas and its relationship to the rest of the world has changed, so too has the place of rice on the CHamoru fiesta table. Today in the Marianas, rice is a staple, an iconic and necessary part of every party and every gathering.
The CHamoru language has many different terms that refer to rice and different stages of its cultivation and cooking. Fa’i is the term for rice which is growing in the field. Fama’ayan is a rice field. Timulo is rice when it has been harvested but not yet husked. Tinitu is rice that has been husked. Chaguan aga’ga is wild rice that grows on its own in the jungle. Pugas is the term for uncooked rice and hineksa’ is the word for cooked rice.
Due to the high amount of labor required to farm rice, it was considered to be a valuable commodity in ancient times. Villages which specialized in the growing and harvesting of fa’i, would trade their pugas to other villages, thereby enhancing their status and wealth. The October moon in Ancient CHamoru times was known as the month of Fa’gualo, which literally means to “make a farm,” and this was the time of the year where CHamorus would begin to farm rice.
CHamorus didn’t make paddies for their rice, but only planted it in places which were already muddy and wet. The villages which specialized in rice production were most likely those close to the wetland terrain such as Talo’fo’fo’ and Malesso’, which is ideal for rice farming. Other southern villages such as Inalåhan and the pre-WWII village of Sumai were used for rice growing.
This high value of rice made it something through which you would express status, wealth and celebration. Rice would be used in foods which were meant to show off your ginéfsaga (wealth) to other families, or show your appreciation to them.
When a couple and families were to be joined in marriage rice played a very important symbolic role. If you were invited to attend a wedding, you would send a kottot (a rectangular woven basket with a portion of rice) ahead of time.
The families of the bride and groom would gather these gifts of rice and use them to make drinks and food for the guests. Most of the rice would be soaked, crushed and then mixed with coconut pulp and then they would puhot (press in hands to form balls) the rice to be given to each guest. The remainder of the rice gifts would be diluted with chigo’ månha to create a broth called laulau which was poured into a wooden bowl for each guest. Other rice based gifts would be given to those present at a wedding. For the least important guests at the party, a two-inch circular disk of cooked rice called a hufot would be given to them. For more important guests a small pyramid rice cake called a patcha, would be given to them. For the most important family members and guests, two large pyramids (one made by each family), each made from 14 liters of rice, would be shared.
Another rice dish that Ancient CHamorus had was atole’, a drink made from water, grated coconut and rice which was distributed at funerals. In addition to cooking rice, they also boiled it in water to form a porridge, which was called alåguan.
Rice in the Marianas now comes in numerous forms, sticky rice, fried rice, Spam fried rice, Basmati rice, etc. The love of hineksa’ aga’ga (red rice) and its symbol as an icon of CHamoru culture and food has reached such heights that non-CHamoru restaurants will offer it, and even the US franchise Kentucky Fried Chicken offers red rice with its meals on Guam.
Following the colonization of the Marianas by Spain in the 17th century, the CHamoru diet changed as their lifestyle changed. In order to keep a close watch on CHamorus and ensure that they did not revert to their pre-Catholic ways, the Spanish reshaped the landscape of CHamoru life, relocating them into new villages, forcing the church to become the center of their lives and also promoting farming (as opposed to fishing and jungle foraging) as the source of their livelihood.
It is during this period that the cultivation of rice becomes easier because of the introduction of new farming technology, but also starts to disappear as well. The Spanish brought with them lulok (metal) and nuebu na ramienta (new tools) which CHamorus incorporated into their existing list of farming implements, and made the work much faster. They also introduced carabao to the island, which could be used to pull large metal yugu (plows), making farming much easier.
But at the same time, they also introduced new crops to the Marianas from Europe and Mexico which were much easier to cultivate than rice and soon became staples in the CHamoru diet. Uncertainty in the Guam’s river flow, scarcity of rain, damage from heavy winds and the heavy amount of labor needed to cultivate rice all made it something difficult to grow or eat in large quantities. When the Spanish introduced ma’ise (corn) to the CHamoru diet in the 17th century, it soon became the main staple, since it grew well in Guam’s soil and was easier to farm and a more reliable to crop.
Throughout the Spanish period rice was still grown, but with the forced Christianization of CHamorus, many the numerous ceremonies that it had been associated with were either prohibited or changed to adhere to Catholic norms.
When the United States seized Guam in 1898 and set up a Naval Government to run the island, they worked for decades to try and stimulate rice production on Guam, with mixed success. At this time, Guam was slowly being opened up as a port and so goods were being regularly imported from Asia. At the end of the pre-war American period on Guam, there were approximately 640 acres of land on Guam being used for rice farming. But as a sack of rice from Guam in 1939 was $3.75, and a sack of rice imported from Japan was only $2, the cultivating of rice during this period was always a difficult one.
These farms were sustained by the CHamoru practice of adalalak or reciprocal work sharing, where a large group of relatives or neighbors would work together and exchange labor on a particular farm. People would help on this farm with the understanding that later on, someone would come and help them on theirs for at least an equal amount of time.
During World War II, when the Japanese occupied Guam for 32 months, the growing of rice became a tragic and much hated thing. The occupying Japanese forced thousands of CHamorus, men and women, young and old, to work in rice fields to feed their occupiers. Each family received haikiyu coupons which gave them weekly or monthly allotments of rations, which was usually a small portion of rice. Imports stalled and trickled to nothing during this period, forcing CHamorus to instead seek sustenance in the jungles and seas again.
The immediate postwar years on Guam saw the end to the island’s local rice production. As families were uprooted and displaced by the US military’s postwar land taking, and a new bustling wage economy was created to support the island’s new local government and the multiple US military bases, the adalalak system of work exchange quickly fell apart. A number of small rice farms continued to exist solely in the southern parts of Guam, but by the 1960’s any local attempts to grow rice to sell had disappeared.
Today, Guam and the northern Marianas imports all of its rice. The cheap cost of imported rice has ensured that it became the staple food item it is today. As a result, the impact of rice goes far beyond CHamorus and their culture alone but is an island-wide phenomena. The influx of a diverse number of Asian peoples from the Philippines and other parts of Asia, where rice is a staple food have led to this centralizing of rice in the island’s diet. Despite a diverse number of restaurants on Guam offering food from every corner of the globe, rice is an essential element of every island menu, just as it is for every party.
One introduction which came during the Spanish period also helped ensure that rice remain a fixture in CHamoru culture and that is the seed achote. This red seed most likely came from Mexico. Achote seeds are soaked in water and the reddened water is added to rice before cooking to create a distinct orange colored rice. Other ingredients can also be added to the rice and achote for flavor, such as bacon, peas, onions and garlic. This rice is known as hineksa’ aga’ga’, and is today, a trademark CHamoru dish and a must on the table of any large gathering.
Placement on table
The red rice is always placed as the first dish at the head of the table, followed by other starches including titiyas (flatbread made of corn or flour), lemmai (breadfuit), dagu (taro) and gollai åppan aga’ (bananas prepared with coconut milk).
Hineksa’ Aga’ga’ : Red Rice
- 4 cups short-grained white rice
- 5 cups water
- ⅓ onion, diced
- 2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
- Garlic powder, to taste
- ¼ cup cooking oil (for a healthier alternative, use canola oil)
- 1 cup achote (annatto) seeds
- 4 or more slices of bacon, optional
- ½ cup frozen peas, optional
As with the preparation of traditional foods, ingredients may be altered to fit your needs and tastes. The recipe listed yields 8 servings. You may use an electric rice cooker or a stove top pot with a tight lid to prepare this dish. Vegetable oil may be used instead of canola. Chicken stock may also be used in addition to water and to substitute salt. When adjusting ingredients, the key to remember is the amount of water should be one cup more than that of rice (i.e. 10 cups of rice = 11 cups of water), unless you use chicken stock (i.e. 10 cups of rice = 10 cups of water + 1 cup of chicken stock). Bullion cubes may also be used.
Soak achote seeds in warm water with oil and salt. Stir mixture to extract color to produce “achote water.” (The longer stirred the darker the coloring becomes.) Set aside.
Rinse the uncooked rice and drain. Place rice in a large pot, add achote water and place pot on stove top on high heat.
When water simmers lower to medium heat and add onions, salt and achote water and stir. If you choose, add peas. Cover pot. Monitor mixture to ensure that water does not completely evaporate (or rice will burn) and lower heat. Stir to ensure rice is cooked evenly.
If you opt to use bacon, render the fat and place slices on top of cooked rice.
Allow to cool and serve.
* Recipe by Martha VC Mendiola