Some of us may have stumbled upon the name Maria Orosa while driving along the streets of Malate, Manila, but never really wondered who this woman was and what her role was in Philippine history.
In recent years, her name entered into public consciousness when it was found the Batangueña food technologist invented one of our well-loved condiments—the banana catsup. This was, of course, before it was mass-produced and made commercially available in 1942 by Mafran and in 1969 by UFC.
But the banana catsup was apparently only one of Maria Ylagan Orosa’s numerous contributions to Philippine culinary heritage, and to society in general. She also invented Soyalac, nutritious soya beans drink, and Darak, rice cookies rich in vitamin B1, both provisions for Philippine forces during World War II. The palayok oven was also Maria Orosa's brainchild. This was used in remote villages in the olden days to cook breads, biscuits and cakes in the absence of electricity and modern technology.
Orosa was instrumental in the development of food preservation techniques such as canning, dehydrating, fermenting, and freezing. “She made flour from cassava, green bananas, and coconuts; fermented wine using native fruits and nuts; coaxed vinegar from pineapples; and transformed seaweed into agar,” according to Ladyscience.com, a magazine on science, technology, and medicine.
This makes the work of Orosa back in the 1920s and onwards—as a food technologist, pharmaceutical chemist, humanitarian, and war heroine—relevant especially in contemporary times.
This was recently discussed in “The Philippines on a Plate,” an online talk series organized by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and the Philippine Culinary Heritage Movement in time for the celebration of National Food Month in April.
In one of the episodes, the panelists—Evelyn Orosa Del Rosario Garcia, youngest daughter of Helen Orosa, favorite niece of Maria Orosa; culinary historian Felice Prudente Sta. Maria; and book designer and food writer Ige Ramos—talked about the life and the novel contributions of Orosa. The discussion was done in time for the relaunch of the book, “Appetite for Freedom, the recipes of Maria Y. Orosa, and Essays on Her Life and Work,” published by Helen more than 50 years ago.
According to Evelyn, the launch seemed to have come in an opportune time. Her Tia Mary, as she would call Orosa, after all, lived during the war when food was scarce. The scientist’s resourcefulness and creativity served her well. “Substitution and reinventing recipes for scarcity of the usual ingredients are so applicable during the pandemic,” Evelyn says.
“Orosa’s work has to be seen in the light of the era during which she worked,” says Felice, “which was before, during, and after World War II when the Philippines was already on its way to establishing its independence...We needed to be self-sufficient in so many things including food. It is true that the war destroyed many things. But if the spirit of the people had not been kept alive with the help of people like Maria Orosa working in the food sector, in home economics, and others, if they had not instilled that strength, we would not have been able to recover in the 1940’s.”
Felice, who wrote the preface of the new edition of Orosa’s book, says that its 700-plus recipes will definitely be something of use to anyone interested in cooking. But for additional knowledge, the recipes are presented in the social political context when these were made and eaten.
“I think we need to understand that Maria Orosa represents science,” Felice points out. After Orosa finished her Bachelor of Science degree in Pharmaceutical Chemistry at the University of Washington and returned to the Philippines in 1922, she later joined the Bureau of Science and manned the Organic Chemistry division.
During the Manila Carnival in 1925, when Orosa and the Bureau of Science put up an exhibit of what the former had been experimenting with—canned local fruits, vegetables, which at that time has never been done yet locally—everyone was stunned with her remarkable work, such that the legislature granted her additional seed money to continue developing and encouraging canning and food preservation at home.
Orosa was truly ahead of her time. People would later on ascertain the importance of going into food preservation when the war broke. Filipinos realized they need to stock on emergency provisions—canned goods and food preserves—and also earn from them. “So there was a very clear program that if you could prepare all these things at home that Maria Orosa was teaching us, then you could also sell the surplus and at the same time have food security. Does that sound familiar?” says Felice, relating the significance of this lesson in history to the ongoing pandemic.
Orosa’s life had a heartbreaking end. When World War II erupted and reached Philippine soil, she joined one of hundreds of guerilla forces formed against the Japanese. As captain, she risked her life by feeding the Filipino and American prisoners of war. Her food invention, the Soyalac, saved many lives.
Despite the dangers, Maria opted to stay in Manila and to keep working at the Bureau of Plant Industry in Malate. “I will continue working and serving my people,” Evelyn recalled Orosa saying. Sustaining injuries from a bombing raid, Evelyn’s father, Luis del Rosario (one of the chemists of Orosa), rushed Orosa to Malate Church, which was then a Red Cross satellite. But while being treated, the facility she was taken to was also bombed. She again got hit by a shrapnel, which pierced her heart. She died on February 13, 1945.
Evelyn says Orosa’s lasting legacy is the balanced diet that she espoused, which is highlighted in the book’s chapter on nutrition. It has solutions for different nutrient deficiencies, she says.
Meanwhile, Felice says it’s “food literacy”—or “knowing as much as we can about our choices of food”—that was really Orosa’s great contribution. She explains: “If we are food literate, we’re not just into how to cook something but also know what it does to our body chemistry, to our emotions, to our mind.” If people are food literate, the public can help the nation develop a good public health system,” she says. “We don’t need to spend on people getting sick, on people having diabetes, on people having high cholesterol and having strokes because we would be following the nutritious diet like the ones Maria Orosa knew about and tried to teach us.”