Monday, March 9, 2015


Visitors to the Marianas don't always like all of our food.

But the one dish that seems to be a hit with almost all visitors is kelaguen, especially kelaguen månnok.

Where did this dish originate?

I wish I knew. Three hundred years ago, only Europeans were writing down things about Chamorro culture and none of them talk about kelaguen.

But coincidences between us and others sometimes leads us to some pretty good guesses. And, between us and the Filipinos, there are two coincidences dealing with kelaguen.

The first coincidence is the dish itself. Both the Filipino and Chamorro versions of kelaguen deal with marinating mainly raw foods in some kind of acid. Chamorros exclusively use lemon (or lime) juice, while the Filipino version is open to vinegar and other fruit juices as well as lemon/lime.

The second coincidence is the name. Chamorros call it kelaguen; in the Philippines it is kilawin, although regional variations on the word exist. The root word seems to be hilaw, or "raw."

Since lemons and limes did not grow in our islands before the Spaniards came, it's more than likely that the basic recipe for kelaguen came from Filipino settlers in the Marianas, although the Latin American settlers could have also had a hand in it, since they have a similar dish called ceviche.

But the word kelaguen is so close to kilawin that I would guess that we borrowed kilawin and pronounced it our way. Remember that Chamorro does not have an independent W souind. The W sound exists in Chamorro when combined with G, for example, as in guiya, guennao, pugua'.

In fact, when foreign names starting with a W came to us, Chamorros pronounced the W in other ways, as in Bisle for Wesley and Guait for White.

Chamorro Kelaguen Uhang (Shrimp)

It's not kelaguen unless it has lemon juice, salt and onions. Green onions will also do.

Purists will say kelaguen also has to have chili peppers (donne') but some people forego that because some people can't stand the heat.

Some kelaguen includes grated coconut, and some do not. Some will not add coconut when the dish will be out on the table a long time, for fear of quick spoilage. Others just don't think grated coconut goes well with raw meat, such as benådo (deer), beef or fish. Some seafood kelaguen, however, will add a bit of coconut milk into the mix.

In a few kelaguen recipes, sliced cherry tomatoes will be added.


The Filipinos, however, are a lot more permissive with what they add to their kilawin. Ginger, garlic, black pepper, sugar and a longer list of veggies than ours can be found in different types of kilawin.

In terms of style, the Chamorros will mash up more what the Filipinos will allow as whole or larger-cut pieces. In the picture above, the Filipinos serve their shrimp whole while the Chamorro recipe would mince the shrimp into a kind of mash.

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