The only way to take control of your life, raise your standard of living and move beyond merely surviving is to create your own unique product or service that you offer to increasing numbers of people in exchange for the things of value that you desire. This simple formula applies to countries as well as people. A self-sufficient economy has its own products or services of value to export to the world. Similarly, a self-sufficient individual has something of value to exchange in the global marketplace. That thing of value is based on your natural talent, skill, or interest—in other words, your passion!
Visit Saipan’s famous Thursday Night Street Market, the Sabalu Market or the Tuesday farmers market across from Kristo Rai Church, and you’ll have a chance to experience a unique Chamorro delicacy called Apigigi (a-PEE’-gee-gee; with “gi” as in give). It’s a pastry made from young coconut, mixed with tapioca starch, sweetened with sugar, wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled.
The honor and place in history as the creator of the sweet Saipan treat with the funny name belongs to Antonio Villagomez Castro, a Chamorro farmer living on Saipan in 1964.
I spoke recently with Antonio’s granddaughter, Connie Torres and his great-granddaughter Kimberly Delacruz, who have inherited a cultural legacy, a family tradition and one of the oldest family-run businesses on Saipan. I got the details of Apigigi’s origin, a tour of the Delacruz kitchen, a family history lesson, and even the secret recipe (which I’ve sworn to protect with my life) and more!
Walt: So, tell me the origin of Apigigi!
Connie: When we were young, growing up on Saipan in the ’60s, whenever we were sick, that’s when we would get special treats to eat. You know, something we don’t get every day, or every week because it wasn’t easy to get at that time. You would have to be sick to try all the good stuff! So, one time, when my grandfather Antonio’s wife (Veronica) was sick in the hospital, they didn’t know what to feed her for mirenda (morning or afternoon snack), so my grandfather experimented and made a special treat for her. Everyone liked it, and we gave it away to people for their parties. And, we would go around to the neighbors and sell it.
Walt: How did it get its unusual name?
Connie: We asked that same question to our older family members, but no one really knows. There’s no such thing as apigigi [in the Chamorro language]. It’s just made up. I think maybe we kids, when we were small, were the ones who named it. [It’s easy to believe that it was a treat named by kids, given how much fun it is to actually say the name! Apigigi!—Walt]
Walt: How did the business develop?
Connie: Antonio passed on in 1966. His mother lived longer than he did. The old lady would tell my mother, “You should continue making it. People really like it, and it’s a good business.”
But, my mother told her, “I don’t have the help to do it.” Her two sisters, [Antonio’s daughters] were doing different things, you know, each to their own way.
My grandmother told her, “Continue, because you have three girls of your own (Linda, Annie, and me) who will help you.”
And that’s how I got involved in the business.
Walt: How did it continue growing?
Connie: In the early 70s, there were these nuns and priests from Guam who found out about Apigigi, and really loved it. Every time they traveled to Saipan, they had to bring it back to Guam with them.
At that time, we were all students at Mount Carmel. When they raised the tuition, it became too expensive for us. But one of those same nuns begged my mom not to take us out of the school. She prayed that our orders would increase to help us pay the tuition. Ever since then things have just kept growing!
Walt: What’s changed in the process since the early days?
Connie: Not much. At first, we did everything manually. There was even a time my mom used to make her own starch. Up in Marpi, there was a place where wild tapioca grew. We used to go there once a month. We’d harvest tapioca, process it manually—skin it, soak it for a few hours, wash it, grind it by hand, drain off the water, sun dry it, mix it with coconut...
We used a rock to grind the tapioca. I used to cry a lot having to grind so much! In fact, we still have the original rock we used to grind the coconut!
When my dad went to the states in 1978, he saw an electric grinder, so, when he came back, he took what he saw, attached a motor to our corn grinder, and created his own motorized grinder for the coconut.
Walt: People call you from the states and from Guam when they’re coming to Saipan and place special orders for your Apigigi. What makes YOURS so unique?
Connie: Well, for one, with other people’s Apigigi, you have to eat it when it’s hot. With ours, you can leave it out for three days and it’s still good. Maybe it’s the banana leaf. We grow our own banana trees on our property. Maybe the way we cook it is a little different. Or, maybe it’s just because it is our product. We grew up with it, it’s part of our family, so there’s something about that that makes ours taste better, and taste the same way it did back in the ’60s.
Walt: What’s your business secret? What do you spend on advertising?
Connie: We don’t need to spend to advertise. By giving it away, that’s our advertising! We give it to friends who have parties. People try it, and they ask, “Where do you get this?”
Walt: Who is involved in the bakery now?
Connie: Myself, my sisters (Linda and Annie) and one worker (Teddy) who is the one who actually makes it. For selling at the market, there’s a different crew. And, of course, Kimberly. [Kimberly Delacruz is Connie’s niece. She is a first year NMC student, majoring in Business Management—Walt]
Walt: What’s your role in the business, Kimberly?
Kimberly: I used to stay with auntie Connie when I was in middle school, and help her out with packing the Apigigi. Now, I’m kind of like the second in command. If auntie Connie is busy with the cooking, I’ll be running around doing deliveries, making deposits, buying ingredients. Any errands, other than those here in the kitchen, I will be the one!
Walt: And what’s unique about the business from your perspective?
Kimberly: We are a business that also preserves our culture.
Our process and techniques are the same we used from the start. We still mix it by hand. We still cook it by hand. We don’t even need electricity. It’s the same process, just updated a little to the meet the demand. It’s still the same grinder that we used, except with a motor.
All the local tour guides, they’ll come by the market and introduce the tourists to our Apigigi. But, I hear a lot that people here don’t know that we were the original because we don’t advertise. We’re very underrated. It’s a small business, but I believe it’s a hidden gem of the island.
Walt: And you also just launched the Apigigi Web site, where people can see the menu, the kitchen, and even the actual stone your great-grandfather used to make the first Apigigi.
Kimberly: Yes, and our skillet also is the same pan that my great grandfather [Antonio] used. It’s the same pan! I was amazed by that!
Walt: What pastries and products do you offer?
Kimberly: We have Tamales (tapioca and taro), Titiyas (flour, baking powder and coconut), Chicken Kelaguen, Tamales Gisu (a foil-wrapped tamale with seasoned rice and ground corn) and, of course, Apigigi.
Walt: I like that it all started with doing something for the family and has continued by keeping it family operated as well!
Connie: Yes, it’s a true family business started by my grandfather—Antonio Villagomez Castro—who wanted to give a treat to his wife Veronica. Continued by his daughter and son-in-law—my mom and dad—Maria Castro Delacruz and Manuel Tenorio Delacruz—and passed on to me and my sisters Linda and Annie, and now with the help of a new generation: my niece—Kimberly. And everyone who tries and enjoys the original Apigigi becomes part of our family, too!
To visit Delacruz Pastry, turn off Beach Road at Mount Carmel Church, turn left right after Shirley’s Coffee Shop, and look for the large sign on your left; call (670) 234-6978. Or visit http://apigigi.blogspot.com
(click on “View Complete profile” to hear how to pronounce Apigigi)
Note: Ever wanted to direct your friends and family to a set of websites that revealed the best things about Saipan? Do what I do: send them to www.bestofsaipan.com!
Note: Fans and followers of the book, Chicken Feathers and Garlic Skin: Diary of a Chinese Garment Factory Girl on Saipan are encouraged to place orders at www.saipanfactorygirl.com. A new shipment is coming soon, and people are already claiming their copies even before it arrives! Don’t miss out!
Until next week, remember, success is a journey, not a destination!
Walt F.J. Goodridge is author of over two dozen books including Turn Your Passion Into Profit. Walt offers coaching and workshops to help people pursue and profit from their passions. Originally from the island of Jamaica, Walt has grown several businesses in the US, and now makes his home here on Saipan. To learn more about the Saipanpreneur Project and Walt’s philosophy and formula visit www.saipanpreneur.com and www.passionprofit.com)