Titiyas, derived from the Spanish word “tortilla,” is a flatbread made from the flour of corn, wheat or other starchy plant. There are different types of titiyas siha (plural form of titiyas) including those made from pandanas nut, ‘faddang’. On Guam, the common forms are harina (flour, sweetened), mai’es (corn), and faddang (Federico nut).
The earliest reference to the making of corn flatbread appears in Spanish missionary documents of the 17th century. Catholic Fray Juan Pobre wrote about his planting of corn during his stay in Rota (Luta) in 1602, and stated that the natives liked corn very much. He didn’t state how the corn was prepared. By this time, New Spain (Mexico) was influencing the plant and food introductions to the Marianas by way of the Galleon trade between New Spain (Mexico) and the Philippines. Guam was the only stop on this trade route.
By the time the islands were firmly under Spanish rule in the 1700s, the natives had CHamoru-ized the name, “tortilla” to the native pronunciation of “titiyas” (pronounced “ti-ti-djas”). This food joined other starchy native foods such as breadfruit and taro as part of their staple diet.
Corn flourished on the islands and was easily stored in clay jars or barrels after drying the husked kernels on mats in the sun. The metate (millstone) and mano were also introduced from Mexico and again its name was CHamoru-ized to become “mitåte” and “månu,” used to grind the corn.
In addition to corn titiyas, the natives adapted other available starches to this cooking method. Especially in times of famine, the nuts of the Federico palm (a toxic cycad) were processed into flour for titiyas siha by soaking the opened nuts and repeatedly changing the water for about two weeks to remove the toxicity. The nuts were then dried, stored and ground into flour as needed. When wheat flour became readily available as an import later in the 18th century, titiyas was made by mixing the flour with coconut cream (lechen niyok) and a little salt and sugar. Other variations include titiyas månha, or wheat flour mixed with the juice and ground, soft meat of the young coconut, with salt and sugar to satisfy tastes.
Elders of today also speak of “titiyas lemmai” or breadfruit titiyas, whereby the ripe, soft breadfruit pulp is mixed into a dough, sometimes with flour, flattened, and cooked on a flat, iron pan (kommat) over an open fire. Titiyas became the main staple food in the CHamoru diet of the 19th and pre-war 20th centuries. Rice, grown by natives since pre-historic times, did not serve as the basic starch for daily meals until after World War II, as an imported food. Today, titiyas continues to be an essential item on the fiesta table as well as frequent staple food item.
Corn was usually planted by men and boys. Boys had the task of guarding the corn plants from babuen hålom tåno’ siha (wild pigs) (The processing of corn for titiyas involves the husking of ripe corn, which became a social activity by extended families and included children who were old enough to participate. Elders of today reminisce fondly about sitting in the cool bodegas (cellars) as children, husking the corn while listening to elders tell stories and joining in songs. The corn was spread on woven pandanus mats in front of homes to dry thoroughly in the sun.
Children had the responsibility of guarding the drying corn from chickens, and rushed to gather up the mats quickly when rain threatened. The dried corn was stored in barrels in the bodega, where families exchanged it for other food products in addition to using it for family meals. Corn was measured by the “gånta”, which was the equivalent of a gallon-size container.
When preparing titiyas siha, a gånta of corn was “cooked” in a pot by pouring a mixture of hot water and quicklime (åfok), made by burning coral rocks to a powder. The action of the caustic lime soaking overnight caused the hard covering of the corn kernals to dissolve. The next morning the young women of the family began breakfast preparations by washing away the åfok solution, draining the corn, and grinding the softened kernels on the mitåti with the månu. The softened kernels of corn are called “essok”. When the essok is ground into flour, it is called “gulik”(noun, or verb) .
The ginilik (noun referring to the kernals) is then mixed with water to form a ball that sticks together firmly. The ball is then placed on a piece of banana leaf that has been softened by passing it quickly over the fire, (releasing the wax – wax paper is often used today). The ball is flattened by pressing the fingers and palm over it and turning the banana leaf quickly with the other hand to form a perfectly round, flat “pinadda’ “ ranging in diameter from 8- to 15 inches.
It is a joy to watch the artful way experienced titiyas-makers padda’ (may be used as a noun or verb) by pressing, repositioning the banana leaf by quarter turns, and simultaneously smoothing the outer edges by turning the edge of the banana leaf temporarily over the dough to seal the edges in quick, fluid motions.
The pinadda’ is then turned upside-down with the banana leaf onto the heated kommat – a large, flat, cast-iron pan over the fire. The waxy banana leaf releases the pinadda’ easily onto the kommat; and while the pinadda’ is cooking, the banana leaf is re-used to make another. The titiyas is turned frequently until both sides are browned. The surface becomes bubbled from the captured steam in the dough, causing the raised areas to brown faster and sometimes burn.
The last act of preparation requires the cook to scrape the cooked titiyas with a rough scraper – “guesgues” often made by pounding nail holes in the bottom of an empty sardine can – to remove the burned areas. Elder women fondly recall that they used to compete with other girls who were all busily preparing titiyas siha throughout the closely-packed neighborhood. The sound of the guesgues signaled that she was finished making her titiyas siha, and the first sound of the guesgues signaled the “winner”. In typical CHamoru competitive playfulness, sometimes a girl would guesgues leftover titiyas siha to declare herself the winner.
Today’s corn titiyas siha are made from corn processed in the mainland US, Mexico, or the Philippines. A few small family businesses produce fresh titiyas of corn processed off-island and of wheat flour which are distributed throughout the island in grocery stores. Each village usually has their own known titiyas maker, where they may be ordered for daily use or in bulk for fiestas.
Many households have members (usually women) who specialize in making titiyas for family use and as their contribution to the fiesta table. They are usually made from commercial masa harina or maseka mixes sold in five-pound bags. The flour is mixed with water and prepared as above, usually over an electric or gas stove in the family kitchen.
Placement on table
Titiyas siha are placed prominently towards the beginning of the fiesta table, second to the ever-present red rice, or third in line if baked bread rolls are part of the menu. Cut pieces of titiyas are displayed on a platter, flat tray, or woven basket, depending on the theme decided upon. Today’s corn titiyas siha are usually purchased from local producers, cut and stacked in quarters of one round titiyas and packaged in aluminum foil, and flour titiyas siha are packaged in plastic bags. These quarter-rounds are further cut into triangular-shaped pieces for the table.
- 1 – 5 pound bag masa harina or maseka mixes
Mix flour with water in a bowl. Form into balls and place on wax paper. Use a rolling pin to flatten dough to 8 to 15 inch round shapes. Remove from wax paper and place on hot pan or griddle. Cook until flour rises and you can see brown patches on surface. Cut in to triangular pieces and serve.