Chamorro Cooking Practices

Cooking Practices of the Chamorro People of the Northern Marianas

Social Roles are Determined by Food

Other than doing household chores and taking care of children, Chamorro women gathered food in the jungle and on the reef, fished with hand nets, made coconut oil, manufactured pots and cooked with other women. Women were also the ones who tilled and planted village garden plots. They made herbal medicines, and wove mats and other articles to display or store food. Chamorro men also tended gardens, as well as fished, built houses and canoes, worked wood and stone to fashion tools and other implements, and navigated the open ocean on deep sea fishing expeditions. They probably also cooked in the earth oven and made or repaired nets.

Although fishing was largely a man’s role, women and children did gather fish and shellfish in the lagoons. Women also worked cooperatively with men in net fishing using the chenchulu (large drag net), the tekken (gill net) and the lagua’ (hand net).

Ancient Chamorro society was divided into two different castes: the upper caste was known as chamorri, and the lower caste, mangachang. The chamorri were further divided into two classes: the upper class matua, and the middle class achaot. Some members of the achaot class were matua who had been demoted, and others were assistants to matua.

The chamorri lived along the beaches or close to the sea, while the mangachang lived inland in the jungles and hills.

Labor among the Chamorros was divided by class. Men of the upper class, for example, built canoes and manufactured shell “money.” Upper class men also engaged in warfare, sea fishing, sailing and exchange.

Only chamorri owned land in ancient Chamorro society. They did not use slaves but rather, they had servants who worked the land for them. Mangachang, who could not own land, had to ask permission from the chamorri for the privilege to plant food. They cultivated vegetables and fruits, a portion of which they would give the chamorri landowners. They also were forbidden to fish in the ocean or eat fish and shellfish from the sea, nor could they build or use hooks, nets or spears. Instead, they could fish in freshwater rivers and streams by hand or with clubs, and eat eels (asuli) which the upper classes would not touch because of food taboos. The chamorri also would not eat large-scaled fish or shark, which was considered a dangerous enemy.

The interaction between the classes related to food exchanges was described by the Spanish friar Fray Juan Pobre, who lived among the Chamorros in Rota in 1602. He wrote:

“The people living along the shore have an abundance of fish; those who live inland have an abundance of agricultural produce. Consequently, they arrange exchanges, trading fish for rice, for tubers and for other varieties of fruit that the land produces. They have high regard for the large trees that are called orimayes [i.e., lemmai or seedless breadfruit]—with good reason for the fruit provides their daily sustenance, serving instead of bread.”

Preparation of food

Evidence of fire has been found in many archeological sites. Blackened pottery sherds (or fragments), earth ovens and rocks that have been set up for fire were found at archeological excavation sites. Evidence of shells that had either been burned or boiled have also been recovered.

The main methods of cooking used by the Chamorros was baking or roasting in earth ovens (chahan), boiling in earthenware pots, and roasting on embers (peha). Similar to other Pacific island cultures, ancient Chamorros cooked in the chahan by covering their food with hot stones and leaves and placing them on the embers (peha). Few foods were eaten raw. Mañahak (tiny juvenile rabbit fish) were caught in schools at certain periods, dried in the sun and stored for future consumption. Breadfruit was sliced and dried and could be kept for a long time during periods when the fruit was lacking. Turtle, bats and a small number of birds were eaten, but were not the main source of protein for the ancient Chamorros. Rice was the preferred starch and was husked with a wooden pestle (falu’) in a mortar (lusong). Boiled rice was called alagan. Cooked rice could also be formed into rice cakes, which were used at special gatherings and ritual ceremonies.
Click to know…Niyok: Coconut

At feasts, rice and grated coconut was made into a broth or stew called atole, in addition to salted fish. The Chamorros baked root cops, such as dagu (yam) and suni (taro). Coconut milk was drunk in ancient times and coconut cream, made by straining grated, ripe coconut, was used in many dishes, as it is today.

Salt

The Chamorros preserved certain foods using salt formed naturally from evaporated seawater. Salt water from waves breaking along the island’s coast could get trapped in depressions in the rocky shoreline. The water would evaporate leaving salt deposits behind which could be collected. Asiga (salt) Point in Malojloj may have been one of the places where natives would have had access to natural sea salt. In addition to using it for preservation, salt may also have been a trade commodity.

Ancient Chamorros preserved food by drying in the sun, salting, or through a fermentation process of soaking. For example, breadfruit and yams would be soaked in the ocean for hours before burying them in underground pits. Lemon or some sort of citrus was available to the ancient Chamorros, and they could easily have chemically cooked their foods.

During times of famine, less desirable foods, such as fadang (fredrico palm nuts), pandanus fruit, wild taro and wild yams, were eaten. These foods were considered less tasty and more difficult to prepare and process, and so were reserved for times when more desirable foods were scarce. For example, after disasters like typhoons, Chamorros gathered fadang nuts which were soaked in water to extract the poison, dried in the sun, and ground in a stone mortar for flour, and baked.

Many people mistakenly think the intoxicating beverage tuba, formed from the fermented sap of the coconut bud, was present in ancient times. In fact, tuba was introduced by immigrants from the Philippines during the Spanish Era.

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