Maria Orosa, Filipina food technologist, chemist, humanitarian, war hero
November 4, 2019 8:15 AM   Subscribe

She Invented Banana Ketchup & Saved Thousands of Lives. Why Have We Never Heard of Her? The legendary story of María Orosa, the Philippines' greatest war hero. (Amelia Rampe for Food52). Freedom fighter María Y. Orosa and her life-saving ‘darak’ cookies. Orosa incorporated darak (rice bran) not only in cookies but also in hotcakes and muffins. It was considered an effective treatment for those with beriberi, a disease caused by lack of thiamine. (Norma Chikiamco for the Philippine Daily Inquirer) Advances in modern Filipino food technology owe a great deal to the creative researches and salutary inventiveness of a woman chemist and pharmacist from Batangas – María Y. Orosa (archived PDF).

The Long and Tumultuous History of the Humble Banana Ketchup. Created by a war heroine, ridiculed by foreigners, and [recently] embroiled in controversy. (Nicai De Guzman for Esquire Philippines) If you can't find commercially available banana ketchup in your area, here's a recipe from Panlasang Pinoy.

The archived PDF above the break is a good summary of María Orosa's life and times, but the Wikipedia article may be more accessible, and lists more of the memorials and tributes created in her honor. People Pill's biography has more on her notable family, and her publications. Bringing a bit of María's legacy full circle (Orosa earned bachelor and masters degrees in pharmaceutical chemistry, and an additional degree in food chemistry from the University of Washington, and was offered a job as an assistant chemist by the Washington state government, but she returned to the Philippines in 1922), Filipino-influenced cuisine in Seattle, Washington at Archipelago is named and created in honor of Orosa.
“A lot of (Orosa’s) ethos was about how we can sustain ourselves … how can you use what’s around you? She came up with many preservation techniques which are absolute pillars in Filipino cuisine to this day,” [Aaron] Verzosa says.
María Y. Orosa’s 126th birth anniversary is on Nov. 29, 2019, and in celebration, you can bake her ‘buko’ (coconut) chocolate cake (Livestyle Inq), courtesy of her niece, Helen Orosa del Rosario, who published a biography, Maria Orosa: Her Life and Work, which includes 700 of her aunt's recipes.
posted by filthy light thief (13 comments total) 57 users marked this as a favorite
As for why we haven't heard of her, I'm reminded of this tweet:
There is ALWAYS a Rosalind Franklin. In every story.

If there isn’t, we just haven’t uncovered her erasure yet.
posted by NoxAeternum at 8:20 AM on November 4, 2019 [11 favorites]

Thiamine is also known as vitamin B-1.

The Japanese navy was devastated by beriberi in the 1800s because they provided white rice for free, but charged sailors for other food to go with it. It took them years to work out that the beriberi was happening because some sailors were living on just rice to save money.
posted by w0mbat at 9:14 AM on November 4, 2019 [6 favorites]

Thank you for this! What a great story. I'm going to check interlibrary loan for her niece's book and the grocery store for rice bran so we can try the cookie recipe.
posted by Flannery Culp at 9:22 AM on November 4, 2019

Banana chup sounds really interesting. The more you think about it, the more it makes sense. The relationship between ketchup and tomatoes is pretty thin. Gonna keep my eye out for banana ketchup. There's an h mart near town, wonder if they stock it if winco doesn't.
posted by GoblinHoney at 9:23 AM on November 4, 2019

I've had banana ketchup! It tasted similar enough to regular ketchup ("regular" from my US perspective, that is) to make me doubt that ketchup really tastes of tomato at all. It's neat to read the backstory.

I have a c. 1900 American cookbook with recipes for various "catsups" (the one that sticks out in my memory is walnut catsup). The term was seemingly used as generically as "jam". Some brands still specify "tomato ketchup" on the label, too, I assume as an artifact of the time when tomato was not implied -- or perhaps for markets where it still isn't implied.

(With a little imagination, I'm going to declare GoblinHoney's comment eponysterical...)
posted by aws17576 at 10:03 AM on November 4, 2019 [3 favorites]

Banana Ketchup is really good: a much more interesting mix of sweet/tart than typical tomato varieties. The only slightly off-putting thing about the brands of banana ketchup I can get is the wild artificial red colouring in it: I wouldn't mind it being brown banana colour.

Everyone should experience Jollibee once it their life. I dunno who that Andy Richter fella is, but he's a right Morose Wasp.
posted by scruss at 10:47 AM on November 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

I have a c. 1900 American cookbook with recipes for various "catsups" (the one that sticks out in my memory is walnut catsup). The term was seemingly used as generically as "jam"

Previously -- ketchup originally meant “fish sauce” in a dialect of Fujian province, where the history of ketchup started, more than 500 years ago, as a stinky cooking sauce made from salting and fermenting fish guts (covered previously-er). Tomato ketchup was the latest version in a long history of different "catsups," so in that context, banana ketchup is just another variation on fermented sauces and jellies.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:52 AM on November 4, 2019 [3 favorites]

The first time I experienced banana ketchup was in Filipino spaghetti from Jollibee. Its a bit on the sweet side for me but it is good and very different from the bolognese I think most people are familiar with. I'll echo Scruss above about Jollibee - I've been a fan of Jollibee since I went to the one in Winnipeg (despite its cold the 'Peg has a large Filipino population for its size). My first real exposure to regular Filipino food was there in the Peg which was mind altering for me and I've been a big fan of the cuisine ever since.

A fun activity for us as a family is to hit the Seafood City in Mississauga, load up on cartons of calamansi juice, instant salabat and palm vinegar and then hit the street food aisle and get things that look tasty then get some peach mango pies & pineapple drinks from Jollibee for the ride home!
posted by Ashwagandha at 11:32 AM on November 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

Banana ketchup goes really well with Max's Chicken (unbattered deep fried chicken).
posted by linux at 4:34 PM on November 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

Thanks to my mother, I think of banana ketchup as a nearly-perfect accompaniment to tamales. If you're recoiling in horror, think Trader Joe's frozen tamales. It's fantastic.
posted by pykrete jungle at 9:13 PM on November 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

This is what I come to Metafilter for.
posted by jscalzi at 3:58 AM on November 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

This is mind-blowing to me. It never occurred to me that banana ketchup was a recent enough invention that its inventor is known and undisputed. It's such a universal and fundamental condiment in Filipino cuisine, I assumed that its origins were folkloric. But not only is its creator known, she was also an incredible food scientist (i.e.: not a one-hit wonder) and guerilla fighter (!!).
posted by mhum at 3:17 PM on November 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

This is great! I had no idea that banana ketchup was a discrete invention within the historical record. Orosa sounds like a badass worth remembering.

Here are her UW yearbook photos.
posted by away for regrooving at 11:04 PM on November 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

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