Written by Lara Lamb
Illustration by Matthew Profeta
Published 10 March 2022
From everyday meals to big feasts during holidays, Filipinos adore food. It’s deeply rooted in our culture and you could say that it’s one of the essences of being Filipino. We take pride in our diverse delicacies which range from Pinoy spaghetti sweetened with banana ketchup to the salty and sour Adobo. But if you think about it, do we give credit where credit is due? As much as we celebrate and take pride in our culture, understanding its origins makes our appreciation for it flourish further. Who even thought of making bananas into ketchup and helped in prolonging the shelf-life of delicacies like Adobo? Behind the staples in our kitchens is a brilliant woman, nutritionist, and war heroine: Ms. Maria Ylagan Orosa.
As a child who grew up in times of war, Orosa had a dream of making Filipino families self-sufficient in food, health, and especially nutritional needs. It wasn’t an easy task and with this vision in mind, she sought off to study at the University of the Philippines. With her talent and intellect, Americans admired her and allowed her to study abroad as a government scholar at the University of Washington at the young age of 23.  Her hard work paid off when she got appointed as the first Filipino assistant state chemist of Washington in 1920 after graduating in 1918 with a degree in Food Chemistry.   However, with her initial dream in mind, she set off back to the Philippines to work as the country’s foremost chemist.  Her work was so impressive that the government sent her to various countries to further study food technology and preservation— eventually landing a seat in the Bureau of Science and the Bureau of Plant Industry.  Today, she is most known for being the first Filipino nutritionist as she pioneered 700 recipes and numerous inventions that have helped nourish the Filipino people that we still benefit from until this day. 
In her years of service in revolutionizing Philippine gastronomy with the public’s well-being in mind, she was able to make various food techniques. She was able to draw vinegar from pineapples, make wine from endemic fruits, and even make flour out of bananas and cassavas. Her academic background helped her draw out new techniques that preserve delicacies like Adobo and Dinuguan through canning.  Aside from food, she also managed to extract insecticide from tobacco dust— showing her expertise not only in food technology but also in other fields under chemistry. 
With a heart of gold, she didn’t think twice about sharing her knowledge and innovations with the masses. By establishing home extension services in rural improvement clubs, she helped teach barrio housewives different ways to augment their income and improve their homemaking skills. Eventually, the club garnered a number of 22,000 members by 1924 which significantly helped thousands of housewives across the country.  Furthermore, one of her most important inventions includes the Palayok-Oven that aided villagers from the countryside to cook without electricity. 
Being caught up in the second world war, she had to take action and help with what she does best: provide nutrition to the people, especially to those who need it the most. With imports being closed off, Orosa managed to concoct one of her most notable works: banana ketchup. Tomato ketchup was quite popular among the Filipinos when Americans introduced it, so the tomato shortage was felt by many. In hopes of strengthening the Philippine food supply by creating local alternatives to imported goods, she used saba bananas as a base with the traditional tomato ketchup ingredients which resulted in sweeter, glossier ketchup. 
A few years into the war, she decided to join the Marking Guerillas, a resistance movement, as Captain and supplied food to whoever needed her help— whether they were soldiers, internees, prisoners of war, and religious communities detained in concentration camps.   She was dubbed as a war heroine for saving countless lives by smuggling food in Japanese-run camps and providing nutrition to all people alike. Malnutrition was a growing issue that needed urgent attention. To relieve this, she made Soyalac, a protein-rich soybean powder often called the “miracle food” for its nutritional value, and Darak, a cookie made from rice bran that was high in vitamins.  Even when her family and friends pleaded for her to seek refuge outside the country, she refused to leave and continued defending her country. 
A grim day bestowed upon the country on the 13th of February 1945 when an American bombardment hit the building of the Bureau of Plant Industry during the Battle of Manila, which happened to be where Maria Orosa was currently working. She was hit by shrapnel and was immediately rushed to the nearest hospital, only for the same hospital to be hit by another shelling and there we lost one of our greatest heroes. 
Even before her death, she had already planned nationwide rehabilitation projects as soon as the peace was restored. Not to mention, plans to produce chocolate candy funded by one of the owners of Heacock’s, a popular radio station at the time, to be exported overseas.  At the age of 52, who knows what more she could have done? All we’re sure of is that her unwavering, selfless soul stands as an inspiration to all Filipinos alike. Her preservation techniques, banana ketchup, Palayok-Ovens, rural improvement clubs, and so many more of her recipes and inventions live on until this very day. As much as she’s done for us, hopefully, Filipinos will pay more tribute to her devotion and work. From one Filipino to another, may her legacy speak volumes to spark selfless acts full of love.
Behind the staples in our kitchen that bring smiles to our faces is a brilliant and strong woman with a heart of gold.
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