I've seen the look on my friends' faces when the words banana ketchup are uttered. Confusion, maybe even disgust. How can two things with such different flavor profiles exist in one product? Despite its seeming incongruity, banana ketchup is a pantry staple that rings nostalgic to many Filipinos all over the world.
Magdalo V. Francisco, Sr. is credited with mass-producing banana ketchup in 1942, thus making it a fixture in the Filipino household. To this day it's used as a condiment that accompanies many popular dishes such as tortang talong (an eggplant omelet), fried chicken, hamburgers, and Filipino spaghetti (pasta with banana ketchup and sliced hot dogs).
You can even find some refined versions of banana ketchup in modern Filipino cuisine. At Toyo Eatery in Manila, Jordy Navarra makes a "Banana Catsup" using fermented bananas, banana peel vinegar, banana blossom, tomatoes, and spices. True to tradition, he also serves his alongside tortang talong.
But to truly understand the roots of banana ketchup, it's important to understand the person behind the innovation, as well as the environment in which it was produced.
Her name? Maria Orosa.
As Chef Navarra says, "Growing up in Manila, we always knew the name of Maria Orosa as a pretty famous and busy street. After getting into food and learning about the history of banana catsup, we stumbled upon her story."
A food chemist and innovator, Maria saw that the Philippines was heavily reliant on imports like tomatoes. At the same time, she understood and envisioned the vast potential of a great many products endemic to the island nation that, when used properly, could make the country more self-sufficient. She was passionate about a self-sustaining Philippines and made it her life's work to study native food, and the use of fermentation and various preserving techniques to educate and uplift people in need. She would eventually become a war heroine through her food innovations.
One day, she created a banana sauce with mashed bananas, vinegars, and spices. The brownish-yellow color was not very appetizing, so a little red dye was added, turning it to what is today known as banana ketchup. But her story is far vaster than her most popular invention.
Maria moved to the United States at the age of 23 (some accounts say she was a stowaway). She was a government-sponsored scholar at the University of Washington in Seattle. There, she earned a bachelors and a masters degree in pharmaceutical chemistry, as well as one in food chemistry. During her education, Maria would spend her summer breaks working in the Alaskan canneries.
In the end, she earned a position as an assistant chemist for the state of Washington, but instead chose to return to the Philippines in 1922. Upon her return, she taught home economics at Centro Escolar University and would later transfer to the Bureau of Science organizing the food preservation division.
A humanitarian at heart, Maria had a vision of empowering the Filipino family. She launched Health, Heart, Head, and Hand (4-H) Clubs. This organization brought herself and other educators into rural areas and barrios to teach women how to raise poultry and preserve food, as well as how to prepare and plan meals. By 1924, the organization had over 22,000 members. Part of her initiative was to introduce one of her inventions, the palayok oven — a clay oven intended for people who did not have access to electrical appliances.
She used her background in food chemistry to run experiments in fermenting, dehydrating, and preserving native plants and animals. The innovations that emerged are said to still be used in laboratories today. The ultimate goal? Make the Philippines more self-sufficient and sustaining.
Local fruits like tamarind, santol, and calamansi provided her with foundations to make wine, jams, and jellies. Cassava and green banana flour would replace the need for wheat. Coconuts would yield vinegars; she was the first to preserve macapuno, a jelly-like product of coconut that is used in Southeast Asia to this day. She was also the first to freeze mangos, enabling distributors to send the famous Filipino fruit throughout the world.
The Bureau of Science recognized her efforts and promoted Maria to head of the Home Economics Division and the Division of Food Preservation. Her work with the bureau would send her all over the world to research canning and preserving technologies.
Some of Maria's most known contributions to the food world came during World War II. She was beloved within Filipino households for her banana ketchup, but became a war hero for her two other inventions: Soyalac and Darak. Soyalac is a protein-rich, highly nutritious powdered soybean product. Darak is a rice by-product that is high in B vitamins, thiamine, and vitamins A, D, and E (intended to fight the vitamin B deficiency disease, beriberi).
During World War II, Maria was a captain in Marking's Guerrillas, a group of Filipinx soldiers who fought alongside the United States against the Japanese. Legend says that she devised a system for smuggling Soyalac and Darak in bamboo into Japanese-run concentration camps. These internment camps, which housed mostly Guerrillero and American prisoners of war, were known for poor sanitation and lack of food. Many would perish as a result of malnutrition. Freedom fighters disguised as carpenters would deliver Maria's "magic food," saving countless POWs and civilians.
Despite pleas from her family and colleagues to leave Manila during the war, she stayed until she was killed by shrapnel from fratricide in 1945.
Maria Orosa was a scientist, an activist, a humanitarian, and a war hero who loved her country and dedicated her life to uplifting the Philippines through food innovation. Many of her recipes and experiments were compiled by her niece, Helen Orosa del Rosario, in a posthumous book called Maria Orosa: Her life and Work. The book contains over 700 recipes, some of them unedited since Maria wrote them.
Banana ketchup, while probably the most beloved of Maria's creations, is just a small part of her great and many contributions to food history. Her creations were intended to bring forth self-sufficiency and empowerment for her nation — and yet, in this day and age, it's hard not to see that Maria symbolizes so much more.
As Chef Navarra says, "It's amazing that she basically is the Filipina food hero. Ingenuity in a time of need which I think captures the Filipino spirit."
This story was originally published on Food52.com: She invented banana ketchup and saved thousands of lives. Why have we never heard of her?