24 May 2006

Saipan Impressions: Three Meals

No one goes to Saipan or Guam for the cuisine, but I did want to try something localized and not the standard American, Chinese, Japanese, or Korean fare near the major hotels. I had a bit of success, but it wasn't easy. And I only had three meals to worry about.

Breakfast on the way back to the airport included the obligatory Spam: a Spam & egg sandwich combo (with coffee and donut) at Winchell's, a U.S. West Coast chain whose menu may have been adapted to Saipan tastes. But I hadn't expected the huge dollop of mayonnaise that dripped off at every bite (with a little help from me).

My first meal on Saipan was delayed until I returned from a drive to see the sights at the north end of the island, since there was almost nowhere to eat on that stretch of road. So I turned off into the port area on the way back and found the dowdy Seaman's Restaurant at the end of a pier past a shipwreck listing in the shallows. It was 11 a.m. and I was the only customer—but a hungry one. The Chinese-run restaurant offered a $5 bento with Saipanese characteristics (pictured above). New England clam chowder substituted for miso soup, served with a Korean soup spoon. The rice and sashimi (with wasabi) were Japanese, the beef broccoli Chinese, and the fish jun vaguely Korean (with a wedge of local citrus to squeeze onto it), while the stewed chicken and onion looked like Philippine adobo, but with little pepper and garlic and even less vinegar or bay leaf. The ice tea was served with a squeeze bottle of sugar water, not packets of sugar or sugar substitute. Two orange slices served as a Chinese final course. It was just the sort of motley Pacific Island cuisine I was looking for.

After driving all over the island most of the day, I decided to see if any place looked promising within walking distance near the hotel. Moby Dick answered the call. A chalkboard listed fish kelaguen, a Chamorro dish of soft chunks of boneless raw fish "cooked" in lemon juice and tossed with slices of green and round onion, and sweet and spicy peppers. It was wonderful—and big enough to serve as an appetizer for two people. But I couldn't resist ordering the local bottomfish catch of the day, either opakapaka or mafuti. I hadn't heard of mafuti. When I asked what kind of fish it was, the Filipina waitress didn't know any other name for it but brought it over to show me. I didn't recognize it, but ordered it grilled. The whole fish came back to me a little bit overcooked, but I demolished most of it anyway. A Tagalog-speaking waiter later explained that "maputi" got its name from being a white fish. Tagalog for 'white' is indeed puti, but the fishname appears to be Chamorro, where the word for 'white' is a'paka'. So I don't know what the story is. (More on Chamorro language later.)

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