Guam: Bird Peppers of the Pacific

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by Patrick Holian; Photos by Edwin Remsberg

Bird Peppers of the Pacific




Finadene Sauce

Guam Smoked Ribs Basted in Finadene BBQ Sauce

Mannock Kadon Pika (Peppery Chicken)

Fish Kelaguen

Guam Red Rice

This was not a pepper adventure to be taken lightly. It began with a seven hour flight from the mainland to Hawaii, another seven hour flight to Guam, and then an hour flight on an island hopper to Saipan. I was truly miles from nowhere.

Coast of Guam



Coast of Guam


Saipan is in the middle of the Northern Mariana archipelago of Micronesia. The Philippine Sea flanks its west coast. The island witnessed fierce fighting in W.W. II and more than 3000 GI’s lost their lives during the island’s invasion. You can still see 60-year-old rusting guns, tanks, and bunkers throughout the hillsides and coastline. It was difficult for me to imagine the carnage as a walked through the lush, tropical farm of George Salas on the eastern shore of Saipan. Leading the way was my local guide, Jeffery Castro.

I had met Jeffery upon landing at the airport where he was smartly dressed in a black police uniform. As he strode up to me, I thought, “Damn, in trouble again.” But Jeffery, sent by my Saipan contacts, was there to greet me . He was just getting off duty as a security guard. He soon changed into civilian clothes and we were off to find peppers.

“They should be here somewhere,” exclaimed Jeffery as he searched the bushes near a grove of mango trees. We were looking for wild peppers. The variety grows throughout the Pacific Islands. The pods are tiny, perhaps half the size and width of your pinky finger, but they pack a sizzling wallop when eaten.

“Ah, here’s the doni sali!” Jeffery pulled back a bush to reveal a dozen bright green peppers.

Doni sali?” I asked.

“Oh that’s our local language–Chamorro,” explained Jeffery. “Doni means pepper and sali means bird.” For the uninitiated, that may seem like a strange term for a pepper, but it made perfect sense to me. A few years back while I was researching a Fiery Foods story, “Honolulu Heat,” I had discovered bird peppers. They are given that name because island birds eat them, and after consumption, become involuntary pepper seed distributors. In fact, some of these birds travel island to island, dispersing seeds as they feed. Thus, the bird peppers that I discovered here on Saipan are closely related to those that I had found earlier in Hawaii. The anglicized name for the pods is “boonie peppers,” though they’re also spelled “booney.”

I was curious to know if there were other bird peppers on nearby islands. Jeffery gave me a few pods and I flew back to Guam. There, I had a chance to meet Frank Cruz. Frank had just retired two years ago from a 20-year career as a Cooperative Extension agent. He now was a gentleman farmer on a 5-acre tropical paradise of breadfruit, papaya, taro, and oranges.

Frank Cruz with Fosinios



Frank Cruz with Fosinios


Hafa adia,” I said to Frank, using the local greeting. “I’m trying to find doni sali. Do you grow any?”

“You do pretty good local talk. How did you learn that?” I explained how Jeffery Salas had shown me the bird peppers on Saipan.

“Well, our peppers here on Guam are better, hotter. Come. We’ll go find some.”

Frank poked through the bushes at the edges of his fields with a long pole called a fosinios. This implement evolved long ago from a whaling tool. They are used for all kinds of farm tasks, as levers or even searching for peppers!

Green Bird Peppers



Green Bird Peppers


“Here we go. Doni sali,” said Frank as he grabbed a bunch of tiny peppers from a waist-high bush. “We normally just cut these up to spice up meat or fish. But my brother, he makes a pepper sauce with these bird peppers, mixing in onion, garlic, and tomato. He sells jars of the stuff to friends. It’s not a business or anything. It’s just a hobby and people like his sauce.”

Red Bird Pepper



Red Bird Pepper


As I bid Frank good bye, I didn’t tell him that the Saipan peppers looked just like those here on Guam. He took great pride in his farm and his island. But it wouldn’t surprise me if these peppers had the same Saipan sizzle of those that Jeffery Salas had found. In fact, a little bird had told me so.


Finadene Sauce

This is the classic Guamanian hot sauce that contains the doni sali variety of bird peppers. It is used to spice up every conceivable food cooked on Guam. Some local ladies of the island prefer to add the onions fresh, just before serving.

  • 10 to 12 doni sali peppers or substitute piquins, stems removed, minced.

  • 1/3 cup soy sauce

  • 1/2 cup lemon juice

  • 1/2 cup chopped onions

Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and mix well. Keeps in the refrigerator indefinitely.

Yield: About 1 cup

Heat Scale: Hot

Guam Smoked Ribs Basted in Finadene BBQ Sauce

Ribs and Red Rice



Ribs and Red Rice


Barbecued ribs are a primary dish on the menus on Guam, and typically they are spiced up pretty hot. Serve them with the Red Rice (see recipe).

  • 1 rack trimmed pork ribs, membrane removed, cut into 2 parts

  • Commercial pork rub, as needed

  • 1 onion, chopped

  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil

  • 1/2 cup soy sauce

  • 1/2 cup Finadene Sauce (see recipe)

  • 1/4 cup vinegar

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Rub the ribs with the commercial rub, cover, and set aside at room temperature for 1 hour.

Prepare the smoker or grill for indirect cooking at 275 deegrees, using a fruit wood for flavoring..

Place the ribs on the grill meaty side up and smoke them for 4 hours, brushing with the sauce during the last two hours.

To make the sauce, place the onion in a sauce pan with the vegetable oil and saute until the onion is soft. Add the remaining ingredients and simmer for 20 minutes.

Yield: About 6 servings

Heat Scale: Medium

Mannock Kadon Pika (Peppery Chicken)

Note how ubiquitous soy sauce is in these recipes! Serve this hot over white rice accompanied by a tropical fruit salad.

  • 1 whole chicken, cut skin removed, deboned, and cut into 1/2-inch cubes

  • 1/4 cup soy sauce

  • 2 tablespoons vinegar

  • 1 medium onion, sliced thin

  • 3 cloves garlic, minced

  • 2 crushed doni sali peppers (substitute piquins), or more to taste

  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil

  • 1 cup unsweetened coconut milk (available in Asian markets)

Combine the soy sauce, vinegar, onions, garlic, and peppers in a bowl, mix well, add the chicken, and mix again.

Add the cooking oil to a large skillet and heat. Add the chicken mixture and saute, stirring often, for about 30 minutes.

Add the coconut milk, bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer uncovered until the mixture thickens.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Heat Scale: Medium

Fish Kelaguen

A kind of Pacific ceviche, this dish is quite popular and is also made with chopped cooked shrimp. The citric acid from the lemons “cooks” the fish and renders it opaque.

  • 2 pounds fresh marlin, thinly sliced

  • Juice of 10 fresh lemons

  • 4 doni sali peppers (substitute piquins) crushed

  • 1 small onion, chopped

  • 1 teaspoon salt

  • 1/4 cup grated coconut

Combine the marlin and the lemon juice in a large bowl, and mix well with a wooden spoon. Add the remaining ingredients, mix well, cover, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours. Serve cold on a bed of lettuce or spinach.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Heat Scale: Medium

Guam Red Rice

From Guam’s Spanish heritage comes this traditional side dish that is often spiced up with bird peppers. This can also be cooked in a rice cooker.

  • 2 tablespoons achote seeds (available in Latin markets)

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

  • 1/2 cup chopped onions

  • 4 doni sali peppers (substitute piquin), minced

  • 1cup white rice

  • 2 cups water

Soak the achote seeds in 1/2 cup warm water for 30 minutes.

Add the salt to the mixture and press the achote seeds to get color. Strain the liquid into a bowl.

Heat the oil in a pan and saute the onions until soft, about 4 minutes. Add the peppers and saute for 1 more minute.

Rinse the rice under cold water until the water runs clear. Add the strained achiote liquid to the two cups of water in a pan, and bring to a boil. Add the rice and cover. Reduce the heat to medium and cook for 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and cook for 15 minutes.

Yield: 4 servings

Heat Scale: Medium

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