Feasting on Kelaguen

Who is not familiar with the word “kelaguen”? As one of the signature dishes of Chamorro cuisine, you see the word on menus and menu boards in a lot of restaurants in the CNMI.
Kelaguen is grilled and chopped chicken, fish, beef, shrimp or other seafood marinated in lemon juice. It’s eaten as a side or main dish. Its recipe has been passed down from generation to generation.
Kelaguen is served in a variety of ways: on a platter, rolled and stuffed in tortillas or taco shells, as filling for titiyas and in many other appetizing ways. If you’re on Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands, you can get kelaguen in a plastic transparent container, ready to eat, from food stalls at the Thursday street market and Tuesday market at the Garapan Fishing Base or at the Sabalu Market in Susupe on Saturdays, and
Kelaguen is also ever-present at parties, gatherings, picnics as well as community events big or small.
According to the book “Ancient Chamorro Society” by Lawrence J. Cunningham, some Chamorro dishes are “cooked” without fire and kelaguen is an example. Acid in the lemon juice and salt marinates the fish, beef or chicken. Grated fresh coconut is often added but it’s optional.
Some months back, a friend convinced me to try octopus kelaguen. The lemon juice “cooked” the boiled rubbery octopus slices to perfection.
But the most delectable kelaguen I’ve tasted is the tiao or goat fish variety. It’s one of the rare items on the Chamorro menu these days.

I once watched Chef Joseph Guerrero of Herman’s Bakery on Saipan making a batch of fresh tiao kelaguen and it was a mouthwatering process. He sprinkled the tiao slices with a generous amount of sliced green onion leaves and red chili.
He said tiao kelaguen requires more time to prepare mainly because goat fish is only available at certain times of the year.

Tiao kelaguen, of course, is very different from chicken or beef. It leaves a tolerably spicy yet pleasant taste in your mouth and makes you crave for more.
Kelaguen is one of those dishes best served and eaten cold — long after it has soaked in its own juices and after the flavors have been blended.

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