What Is Kelaguen?

Karize Uy

Kelaguen is a meat or seafood dish originating from and popularized in the Marina Islands. It is specifically regarded as a Chamoru dish, referring to the indigenous group of people in the Marina Islands, called the “Chamorro.” This dish is very unique because it requires very little cooking from a high temperature. Kelaguen is usually eaten as a side dish, but can also be served as the main meat course. It is also best served cold, accompanied by a heaping scoop of rice or some tortillas.

A vegetarian version of the kelaguen replaces meat with banana flowers.
A vegetarian version of the kelaguen replaces meat with banana flowers.

The origin of the term “kelaguen” is not certain, but the name has a similar pronunciation to a Filipino word “kilawin,” which is a pork dish that also needs little to no cooking. The similarity between the terms can be reasonable as historians believed that the Chamorros might have come from Southeast Asia, particularly from Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Some linguists also observe that the Chamoru language bears a resemblance to some Filipino languages.

Octopus can be used to make kelaguen.
Octopus can be used to make kelaguen.

The reason why the kelaguen dish does not need to be cooked over the fire is that it uses the acid from certain ingredients to “cook” the meat. To do this, the meat is supposed to be marinated in what is called “finidini,” which uses lemon juice and coconut water as the primary ingredients. Soy sauce can also be added for a little saltiness. For more flavoring, the finidini can also include sliced green onions, chili peppers, salt, and pepper. The meat is then soaked in the finidini for a few hours, sometimes even overnight to make sure it is cooked and has absorbed the flavors or the marinade.

For more texture, grated coconut is also added in, as well as the coconut milk. It should be noted that the coconut water is the clear liquid contained inside the coconut, while the coconut milk is the milky-white liquid that is squeezed from the coconut meat. Many chefs and traditional recipes recommend chilling the kelaguen in the refrigerator while “cooking” to merge the flavors together. The dish should be occasionally stirred and mixed so the marinade is equally absorbed by the meat.

Almost all kinds of meat can be used to make kelaguen, but it is most probable that the dish initially used fish as the meat ingredient, since the Marina Islands are surrounded by water. Other seafood such as shrimp, octopus, and squid is also used, but should be boiled a little first before marinating. Beef, venison or deer meat can also be used. If chicken is used in the kelaguen, the meat should be grilled or broiled first before being soaked. A vegetarian version of the kelaguen replaces the meat with banana flowers, which are also initially boiled before being marinated.

Grated coconut can be added to kelaguen for more texture.
Grated coconut can be added to kelaguen for more texture.

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