Citizens! Today is Part 4 of our ongoing series concerning South Pacific Island recipes – and our last. My dear cousin Stephen Levine – avid surfer, artist and former attorney – used to live in Micronesia, a U.S. protectorate. Today, while he currently resides in Maui, he has literally been all over the South Pacific including the Mariana Islands chain / Guam (all U.S. protectorates) and it is the Mariana Islands and Guam that we shall be discussing in today’s recipe! The most ubiquitous dish in the region is known as red rice and I – the Hetman of History, the Regent of Rice, YOUR TFD! – shall share all of its hidden secrets with you!
To summarize a much longer history of Guam in my last post: Guam is a small Micronesian island about 13 degrees north latitude and 144 degrees east longitude. It sits almost 1,500 miles south of Japan and around 2,100 miles from North Korea. It is the lower-most island of the Mariana Islands archipelago, the northern portion of which is the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, another U.S. protectorate.
According to historians, Guam was discovered and populated by Austronesian peoples around 4,000 years ago. Guam got a jump on contact with Europeans when Ferdinand Magellan stumbled upon Guam in 1521. About four decades later, Miguel Lopez de Legazpi declared Guam a part of the Spanish empire in 1565. Guam remained a Spanish colony until it was ceded to the United States as a concession of the 1898 Spanish-American War.
Guam was governed by the U.S. Navy from 1898 until it was captured by the Japanese empire on Dec. 8, 1941, around the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The United States recaptured Guam on July 21, 1944. About six years later, Guam became an unincorporated territory of the United States under the Organic Act in 1950. The people of Guam continue to celebrate July 21, or “Liberation Day,” with a big parade, fiestas and other patriotic festivities.
Now – as to the red rice, known in the local language as hineksa’ aga’ga’ – I shall quote extensively from guampedia.com’s excellent article on the topic!
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.
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.
Throughout the Spanish period rice was still grown, but with the forced Christianization of CHamorus, many of 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.
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).
A most scholarly summation indeed – #respect to the author!
The ingredients for red rice are quite similar to those found in the Mexican version of this dish, but with unique Guamian touches that make their version special to all the people in the region. All of the ingredients are easily found in your supermarket, except for 2 that are a bit more problematic. To stain the rice red, you aren’t going to use tomato paste – no, just like in Mexico, the coloring ingredient is in fact whole achiote seed, which is easily found in Latin American markets or on Amazon here. I also like to add a little bit more flavor complexity to the rice by adding some vegetable stock paste to the cooking water – this is my preferred brand.
Citizens – my cousin Stephen has truly lived a life of ideals, wonder and global travel and I am honored to be related to him – and now that TFD is ½ way to being fully immunized, I plan to visit him in Hawaii later this year for the first time in 35 years (!) to catch up properly! Consider serving red rice as part of a full South Pacific feast, perhaps accompanied by this delicious vegetable dish from New Guinea!
Battle on – the GeneralissimoPrint
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