The primary reason why I, along with fellow travel blogger Ivan of Ivan About Town, food nerd JJ of Pinoy Eats World and writer Angel of Travel Life, flew to Guam for 5 days last May was for the Maila Ta Fan Boka Festival. Meaning “come and let’s eat,” that’s exactly what we did in Guam.
We arrived on May 25, a Wednesday. After checking in at our hotel, we headed to the Chamorro Village to meet the Guam Visitors Bureau team, as well as the other participants for dinner. There’s a night market there every Wednesday and it’s packed with tourists and locals alike. This is the best place for you to sample typical Guam meals. However, due to the number of Filipinos living in the tiny island, the menu usually have a Pinoy dish or two.
Our dinner was a preview of things to come: a long table laden with food you would usually see in any party around Guam: red rice, tortillas, grilled ribs, grilled chicken, ham, noodles (very similar to our pancit), and of course, kelaguen.
The food festival was officially opened on May 26 at the Toh-Lee restaurant in Hotel Nikko. Located at the 16th floor, we had a sweeping view of Tumon Bay as Pilar Laguaña, GVB’s Marketing Manager and Senator Tina Muña-Barnes welcomed us to the island they call home.
The day’s itinerary had us going around the island visiting farms. The first stop was Johnny Castro’s Mango Farm, where we were treated to frozen fresh ripe mangoes. It was the perfect snack as it was a very hot day. We walked around the farm ogling mango trees and wondering why they don’t seem to grow as tall as the mango trees in the Philippines. Turns out that they graft the saplings to make a hybrid mango variant that has the same sweet taste, but has a tree at a more manageable height.
We had lunch at the Hamamoto Tropical Fruit World in Yona. After filling ourselves with kelaguen, we boarded the tractor that took us around Mr. Hamamoto’s expansive garden, where he planted different kinds of fruits and berries. When we got back to the pavilion, our eyes bulged at the lovely fruit buffet spread. There were two tables: one for freshly squeezed lemon-lime juice (you have to do the actual squeezing), the other laden with fruits freshly picked from the garden. There were bilimbi (kamias), mountain apple (macopa), honeydew, melon and star fruit. But what really captivated me were the slivers of coconut meat dipped in soy sauce. Vegetarian sashimi FTW!
After that, we were whisked off to the Hydrophonic Lettuce Farm. Here, red and green butter lettuce, red oak leaf, Greek oak leaf and frisee lettuce are organically grown without pesticides nor soil. Great care goes into protecting the greens from insects and the harsh UV rays, as well as ensuring that the farm stay environmentally friendly.
The first day was capped with a hearty dinner at the Muña family compound. Before we dug into the huge bowls of kelaguen though, we were given a quick lesson on cooking Chamorro food. The dish assigned to us, the Lechen Biringhenas (Barbecued eggplant with coconut milk), was very easy to prepare: grill and peel eggplants, arrange in platter and douse with a mixture of coconut milk, salt, pepper and chili.
That evening, I was reminded of our family gatherings when we’re celebrating a birthday or New Year’s: every one bonding over food. It was a very laid back evening capped with cha-cha and Chamorro dance presentations.
We were up bright and early the next day and headed to the yet to open Lina’La’ Chamorro Cultural Park. The park is both an ecotourism destination and a living museum. Once finished, the park will have outdoor activities available for guests (nature trails, beach activities, and the ever present zip line). The highlight of the park though, is the Chamorro village, where guests can experience what it’s like to live in Guam before the Spaniards came. Houses made with nipa dot the small clearing and we see Chamorro natives puttering about in their traditional garb preparing meals and building houses.
Standing there in the middle of the small village, I was struck by the many similarities between Guam and the Philippines. It goes beyond the number of Filipinos who have migrated there. We are both islands in the Pacific, experiencing the same tropical climate (and even the typhoons too), we have experienced life under the Spanish rule and lived with the Americans (except they remained American).
We had lunch at the beach (even more grilled ribs, chicken and kelaguen), then broke off into groups to tour the island. More on this in my next post!
The third and last day of the Maila Ta Fan Boka festival culminates with a culinary competition featuring professional chefs putting forth their best interpretation of Chamorro cuisine and amateur cooks dishing up their best homegrown recipes.
Everything that each contestant came up with is a delight for the tastebuds, but there was one that I still salivate over up to this day: chicken kelaguen burrito. It was too spicy for my palate, but that is one fine burrito. And kelaguen.
From the Guam Premier Outlet, where the culinary competition was held, we headed south to the town of Agat for the Mango Festival. The town is known for its bountiful mango trees and the festival is their way of showcasing their best product. Mangoes of different sizes and shapes are on display and visitors are welcome to try the different varieties. While the thought of seeing mangoes might not be too exciting for someone who lives with a mango tree in their backyard, it was really interesting to learn how people from other countries enjoy their mangoes. I was happy to learn that eating mango with bagoong (fermented shrimp paste) isn’t such a weird combination — there are others who like salty and even spicy going with their sweet or sour mangoes.
It was no longer part of the festival itinerary, but the GVB thought it’d be a great local experience (and more reason to ply us with more Chamorro food). We drove south again on Sunday morning to the town of Sta. Rita. They were celebrating their fiesta and as someone who has lived in the city all her life, it’s interesting to see how the community comes together. There were cultural dances presented by the local kids, cultural activities that we were invited to partake in and of course, more Chamorro fiesta food.
Like the fiestas in the Philippines, the Chamorros open their houses to friends, families and fiesta-goers to celebrate and bond. The mayor of Sta. Rita opened the doors to his house for us, and we had our last taste of grilled meat and our kelaguen of choice.