Guam Fiesta Plate: Red Rice, BBQ Chicken & Finadene

Happy Liberation Day, Everyone! Yes, today is a territorial holiday in my hometown — marking the day in 1944 when Marine troops stormed the shores of Asan beach and began the liberation of Guam from Japanese occupiers during World War II. It’s a day of parades and, of course, barbecues everywhere — and I don’t just mean on Guam. The Guam diaspora has spread these flavors all over the world. At one point, the largest community of Guamanians outside of Guam was in Germany — no kidding! (Check out the coverage of this year’s festivities here from Guam’s own Pacific Daily News.)

And barbecues on Guam feature some uniquely prepared foods — most notably Red Rice, lemon-shoyu BBQ Chicken (short ribs and pork spare ribs too if you’re feeding a gang), and a condiment called Finadene (fin-ah-DEN-ee). A typical fiesta barbecue plate is shown here with a eggplant salad in coconut milk (in bowl) and pickled cucmbers.

Guam’s red rice is truly unique. Whereas other red-colored rice dishes will get their color and flavor from tomatoes (fresh or paste), or even beets, this red rice is flavored and colored with achiote seeds (also called annatto or atsuete). The seeds are soaked in water, and the strained soaking liquid is used to cook the rice. Many people will add a tiny bit of salt and oil, as well, but after that everyone will have their own variations of what else, if anything, will be included — onions, peas, bacon or broth are some of the most common additions.

I’ve never seen any other cuisine use achiote water to cook rice — it lends a unique and ineffable flavor. Yestereday T and I tried to think of a way to describe the flavor of achiote-flavored rice to someone who was unfamiliar with achiote. “Earthy” “Smoky” “Meaty” “Like beans that have been pureed” was the closest we could come, but none really hits the mark (that last one was T’s — pretty creative description, I thought). One thing I can tell you, I’ve never met a person who tried it and didn’t like it. Usually when you tell someone you’re from Guam, if they’ve known someone from Guam before, they will either ask you for your finadene, red rice and/or chicken recipe. That’s how these recipes are — you try them once and they stick with you and make you crave your next taste of it.

The recipes below are for what might be considered the holy trinity — the absolute basics — of a Guam barbecue (aka fiesta) plate. You’ll want to make all three if you’re going to make one. Trust me, these flavors were born to go together. The chicken marinade seems ridiculously simple, and it is — you just can’t believe how good this basic recipe is until you smell it on the grill. Charcoal is best, but even a gas grill will work (that’s what we have.... *she ducks as coconuts are thrown from Guam*).

And the best thing is that there are no especially hard-to-find ingredients. The achiote seeds may not be part of your pantry staples, but on Oahu, you can find seeds in the Asian (Filipino) or Hispanic section of most supermarkets. Elsewhere in the U.S. and the world, look in Hispanic markets and Asian groceries for the whole seeds.

At a real Guam fiesta, you will see many, many, many, MANY more dishes than these three, but these are your building blocks. And no, you don’t have to wait for the next Liberation Day festivities to try this. You can bring the flavors of Latitude 13 North to where you live any time (that’s where the island is, Folks, it’s not in the south Pacific)! For another take on these recipes, check out the Betty Shimabukuro’s
full-page spread on Guam cuisine in last week’s Honolulu Star-Bulletin.

If you know Red Rice, how would you describe its flavor to someone who had never tried it??

for 4 persons

1/2 cup achiote seeds
2 cups water

Soak achiote seeds in water for 2 hours.

Wash hands well, then use hands to rub seeds together to release more color from the seeds. Water will be a dark red, muddy color. So will your hand. Achiote is used as a dye and food coloring agent (guess what colors your Cheddar cheese?) so it stains easily and deeply. I’ve taken to using a latex glove when rubbing achiote seeds for this dish — wash your hands WITH the glove on to rid the glove of its powder coating before handling seeds.

Strain water to catch all the seeds (the seeds don’t dissolve when cooked... ha ha... inside joke) into a measuring cup. Top up with water, if necessary, to measure 2 cups. Set aside until needed.

1 medium onion, diced
3 TBL. olive oil

Cook onions in oil over low heat, until translucent and sweet, about 10-12 minutes.

2 cups medium-grain Calrose rice, washed and rinsed until water is clear
1 tsp. salt

Place washed rice in rice cooker. Add salt, and cooked onions, including oil. Add achiote water, and gently stir through. Allow to sit for 10 minutes.

Turn on rice cooker. When cooker turns itself off, do not open lid for at least 15 minutes.

Using a rice paddle or wooden spoon, turn rice over to distribute the cooked contents evenly. Bring paddle down to the bottom of the pot, and turn the contents over so the rice on the bottom (it will be darker colored than the rest) is on top. Gently break up this chunk of rice, releasing steam. (The motion is similar to folding egg whites into a batter — cut, turn and gently distribute.) Continue this motion all around the pot until the everything is evenly mixed through and the steam realeased.

for 4 persons

1 large whole chicken, cut into quarters
2 whole lemons
1 cup soy sauce
1 tsp. sea salt
1 tsp. ground black pepper
1 medium onions, sliced (optional)

Place chicken, skin-side down in large non-reactive bowl. Combine other ingredients and pour over chicken. Marinate overnight in fridge.

Prepare your grill or charcoal barbecue. An hour before it goes on the grill, remove chicken from fridge and allow to come to room temperature.

Place chicken skin-side down on grill. After 20 minutes, turn over and cook another 20-30 minutes, depending on the cut — breast pieces will take longer. Test by cutting near the joint to make certain the juices run clear. Cut into serving pieces and serve with red rice and finadene.

Everyone will have their preferred proportions of lemon juice to soy sauce — we like a really strong lemon flavor over soy. We didn’t have cherry tomatoes this time, but usually we put those in our finadene too.

Juice of 2 lemons
1/2 medium onion, sliced thin
3 stalks of green onion, sliced (optional)
6-10 cherry tomatoes, halved (optional)
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/2 tsp. sea salt, or to taste (you’ll need less if you use more soy sauce than we do)
donne peppers, aka Thai bird chiles, sliced or left whole depending on your heat tolerance

Combine all ingredients, and let stand at least 2 hours before serving. Use on all kinds of meats and grilled vegetables. This is not for barbecues only — finadene is a staple condiment that will spice up any meal.

See also:
Grilled Eggplant Salad in Coconut Milk (Finadene Birenghenas).