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Three Filipino culinary greats remembered

THREE Filipino culinary greats were honored during “2021 Asian Culinary Exchange: Homecoming,” a talk on Sept. 30 by Asia Society Philippines. While all of them are long gone, they all left indelible marks on the Philippine food scene.

They were all women: food writer Doreen Gamboa Fernandez, food inventor/developer Maria Orosa, and restaurateur and cookbook author Nora Daza. They were honored with tributes during the talk: Doreen Alicia Gamboa spoke of her aunt and namesake; Ige Ramos spoke on the subject of his new book, Maria Orosa; and Nina Daza Puyat spoke about her mother, Nora.

Ms. Gamboa gave a detailed account of her aunt’s life: the eldest of three children, homeschooled with the Calvert Education system during the war, the great food critic and author still quoted today.

Yet Ms. Gamboa remembers: “I know that she wasn’t really looking into being a writer, as far as I know.” Publisher Eugenia “Eggie” Apostol (of Philippine Daily Inquirer fame) had approached her uncle, architect Willy Fernandez, Ms. Gamboa Fernandez’s husband, to write about food for Ms. Apostol’s Mr. and Ms. Magazine. “He said, ‘I will eat, and Doreen will write.’ That’s how it started.”

She ended up writing food columns not just for Mr. and Ms., through the years she had regular columns with the Manila Chronicle, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, and Food Magazine. She also wrote a slew of books on Philippine food, often with collaborator Edilberto Alegre. Among these are Sarap: Essays on Philippine Food (with Alegre), Lasa: A Guide to 100 Restaurants (with Alegre), Kinilaw: A Philippine Cuisine of Freshness (with Alegre), Tikim: Essays on Philippine Food and Culture, and Palayok: Philippine Food Through Time, on Site, in the Pot

“She wanted to be remembered as a good teacher — not really as a good writer. That’s what she really enjoyed,” said the younger Doreen about her aunt, a professor at the Ateneo de Manila University who chaired the Communication, English, and Interdisciplinary Studies departments of the university.

One of her treasured memories, thus, is when she asked her aunt to teach her children to write about food — right before her death in 2002. She gave simple tips to her great-nephews. She told them to write what they liked or didn’t like about a restaurant, and to explain why, or write down what they liked or didn’t like about what they ordered. “Write two good things about the restaurant, and two not-so-good things,” remembers Ms. Gamboa. “Tita Doreen was always pleasant. She never liked to say, ‘write a bad thing.’ Even in her books… she never said anything bad.”

“That’s what I loved about her.”

Today, the reluctant writer is honored with a yearly essay-writing contest about food that was named in her honor.

Ige Ramos, scholar, author, and designer, gave tribute to Maria Orosa, known to most people as the namesake of a Manila street. Some people know her as the inventor of banana ketchup, and a few people know her as a martyr of the Second World War.

Mr. Ramos pointed out that the first book about Maria Orosa had come out in 1970, 25 years after Ms. Orosa’s demise. The book was titled The Recipes of Maria Y. Orosa, with Essays on Her Life and Work, and was published through the efforts of her niece, Helen Orosa del Rosario. Apparently, Ms. Orosa del Rosario had been the last person to see her aunt alive. Ms. Orosa died of shrapnel wounds during the month-long Battle for Manila in 1945.

Mr. Ramos, with the estate of Maria Orosa, published and designed an updated version of the book, now called Appetite for Freedom: The Recipes of Maria Y. Orosa and Essays on Her Life and Work. The anecdotes and recipes were compiled by Ms. Orosa del Rosario, but Evelyn Orosa del Rosario Garcia (Helen’s daughter) edited the work for its 50th anniversary revival. It has a preface from food historian Felice Prudente Sta. Maria, and a foreword from food columnist Michaela “Micky” Fenix.

More than just banana ketchup, Ms. Orosa’s work helped revitalize rural areas through food technology, thanks to her own experience as a chemist.

“Orosa introduced improvements for widespread well-being, using food education and science applied to everyday cooking,” said Mr. Ramos. Serving as a captain in the underground movement during the war under Marking’s Guerillas, Maria Orosa, according to Mr. Ramos, smuggled vitamin-rich protein nutritional powder to prisoners of war and into internment camps. “The story about a heroine-scientist inspires similar civic action today,” he said.

Over her lifetime she invented over 700 recipes, including Soyalac and Darak (rice bran). She invented a palayok (clay pot) oven for use in areas without access to electricity, developed recipes using local ingredients, and developed preservation methods for native dishes.

Meanwhile, Nina Daza Puyat spoke about her mother, cookbook author, restaurateur, and early TV celebrity chef Nora Daza.

“When my mom, Nora Daza, passed way in 2013, at the age of 84, a family friend texted me: ‘Thank you very much for sharing your mother with the Philippines’,” said Ms. Daza Puyat. “That message struck me because I never thought of it that way. Now that I am piecing her life together, I realized how true that sentiment was. Perhaps indirectly, Nora Daza did devote most of her culinary life to the Filipinos, for the Filipinos, here and abroad.”

Ms. Daza was known for opening one of the first French restaurants in the country (Au Bon Vivant), as well as opening the first Filipino Restaurant in Paris, Aux Iles Philippines.

She reached a wider audience through her popular cooking shows, At Home with Nora and Cooking It Up with Nora. She was also, for four years, the director of the Manila Gas Cooking School during which time she kitchen tested over 500 recipes.

But perhaps more than these, she is best known for her cookbook, Let’s Cook with Nora, which inspired many Filipino home cooks to serve gracefully at their own tables. It was first published in 1965, then again in 1969, that edition being the most popular. Ms. Daza Puyat published an updated edition in 2019, revising some recipes and changing ingredients to those more accessible today. ”

“That’s over 50 years of two or three generations of Filipinos relying on Nora Daza’s recipes.” — JL Garcia

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