The Sweet Story of Innovation: Maria Orosa and the Legacy of Banana Ketchup

In the colourful tapestry of Philippine cuisine, no other condiment stands out quite like Banana Ketchup. Sweet, tangy, and sometimes spicy, this uniquely Filipino creation born out of necessity during a time of scarcity, has evolved into a beloved staple on dining tables across the archipelago. At the heart of this culinary innovation lies the remarkable story of Maria Ylagan Orosa, a pioneering food technologist whose ingenuity reshaped the way Filipinos enjoy their favourite dishes.

Maria Orosa's graduation photo, bust (photo taken by Ramon F Velasquez), and street sign.

Maria Orosa was no stranger to adversity. Born in 1893 to a farming family in Taal, Batangas, she defied the odds to pursue her education, first briefly studying in the country’s top institution - the University of the Philippines, before eventually moving to the mainland US and earning a degree in pharmaceutical chemistry from the University of Washington in Seattle. Her upbringing instilled in her a deep appreciation for the bounty of the land and the resilience of the Filipino spirit—a spirit that would later fuel her ground-breaking innovations in food technology.

The origins of banana ketchup can be traced back to World War II, a difficult period marked by economic shortages and rationing. It was amidst this backdrop of scarcity that Maria Orosa, armed with her background in pharmaceutical chemistry and a keen understanding of local ingredients, stepped into the spotlight.

By the mid-1930’s, that Maria was leading the Plant Utilisation Division of the Philippine Government’s Bureau of Plant Industry, handling many food difficulties brought by increasing scarcity. Amidst this, she faced the challenge to create a tomato ketchup substitute. Originally introduced to the Philippines after the Spanish American war by American GIs then subsequently adopted and loved by Filipinos for its tangy flavour, tomato ketchup was becoming more expensive to produce.

Armed with her knowledge of native ingredients, Orosa turned to the humble banana, a native fruit abundant in the Philippine countryside and familiar to the Filipino diet. Drawing upon her scientific expertise and culinary intuition, she tested and discovered a recipe that transformed mashed bananas and other spices into a sweet and tangy, sometimes spicy, and very flavourful condiment – Banana Ketchup.

Filipino Banana Ketchup by RoniB's Kitchen

However, Orosa's contributions extended far beyond the realm of banana ketchup. Throughout her career, she dedicated herself to developing innovative food products that addressed the nutritional needs of her fellow countrymen. From Soyalac, a nutritious food supplement made from soybeans to calamansi juice concentrate, her inventions have changed how Filipinos consume and perceive their native ingredients.

During World War II, Maria Orosa's talents were put to the test as she served as a volunteer medic and nutritionist, providing aid to soldiers and civilians alike. Sadly, she died of shrapnel wounds in 1945 during an American bombing raid hitting her government building. Her selfless dedication and unwavering courage earned her recognition as a national hero—a title befitting of her contributions to Philippine society.

Today, banana ketchup remains a beloved symbol of Filipino resilience and creativity. Its vibrant red hue and unique flavour profile evoke memories of home-cooked meals and festive gatherings for Filipinos around the world. Whether paired with crispy fried chicken, drizzled over grilled meats, added to marinades, or used as a dipping sauce for spring rolls (lumpiang shanghai), banana ketchup holds a special place in the hearts of Filipinos everywhere.

In a world where ingenuity meets necessity, Maria Orosa's legacy shines brightly as a beacon of hope and inspiration. Her pioneering spirit and unwavering determination remind us that even in the face of adversity, innovation can flourish, and the sweet taste of success can be found in the most unexpected places.

Like Maria Orosa, our founder Roni Bandong-McSorley also hails from the Philippines and even shares the same educational origin – both are alumnae of The University of the Philippines! Roni takes pride in being a Filipino woman in the UK global food industry, much like how Maria proudly represented her roots when she was living in the USA.

Our own Filipino-Style Banana Ketchup builds upon Maria’s legacy of food innovation and bringing familiar Pinoy flavours to a wider, international audience. As we savour each dollop of banana ketchup, let us pay tribute to Maria Orosa, the remarkable woman whose brilliance continues to enrich our culinary heritage to this day.

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