Profiles

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.

October 26, 2019
Photo by Manilla Bulletin

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.

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Top Comment:
“I'm Filipino American and from time to time my folks would have Jufran, the most popular brand of banana ketchup. I assumed it was a staple condiment that had been in Filipino pantries for eons. I had no idea that Maria Orosa was its creator and was so important in promoting the Philippines' sustainability, which I think was an uphill battle given the degree of colonization the country experienced for hundreds of years. Great FilAm history lesson! Thanks, Amelia! ”
— gustadora
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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.

Photo by Wikimedia Commons

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.

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.

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.”

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68 Comments

Joekerr M. November 12, 2019
Sadly we are arguing definitions.. the real issue is... food doesnt seem heroic. Sad but true these unrecognized but very important contributors to society never get the same recognition as firemen.doctors,soldiers etc etc. Most of what passes for history is horribly incorrect... much of this due to people fighting over definitions as opposed to what actually happened. Ive been arguing for over 30 yrs about how WW2 was really won...but people prefer to hear fantasies that simply dont make any sense- mainly because they just dont want to accept what happened. And here we have a similar issue- her work was groundbreaking and life saving but it didn't fit the narrative of some macho fighter standing tall....
 
blisstree November 3, 2019
"Why have we never heard of her?"

Because here in the United States, our education system teaches us American history. If you want philipino history, I'd suggest you attend a philipino school.
 
kml606 November 4, 2019
This is American history. Please read what she did for the US POW.

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.
 
Axel L. November 4, 2019
Sounds like you ain't have enough lumpia in your life.
 
schuylersister November 6, 2019
There are plenty of Filipino people in the United States, and they've been a part of our history for more than a century, and as Maria's story intersects with American history quite often, this seems like an odd thing to say!
 
Bella95 November 2, 2019
What a wonderful woman. Her humanitarianism in the face of other safer or more profitable offers and opportunities is humbling.
 
gourmet B. November 14, 2019
Agreed.
 
99Percnt November 2, 2019
"Why Have We Never Heard of Her" Because there where hundreds and thousands of heroes in during the world and after. This is a great story and thank you for bringing it up, but let's leave the virtue signaling innuendo at the door.
 
gourmet B. November 14, 2019
But did those hundreds and thousands invent new foodstuffs that saved starving populations, though? Let's be real, 99%.
 
Glenn J. November 2, 2019
I love banana ketchup! What a fascinating and moving story. It left me with a deeper appreciation of the indomitable spirit of the Philippines, it's rich history, and also with an urge to eat tortang talong (eggplant omelette with bananas ketchup) for breakfast tomorrow! Thanks for posting it.
 
Lyn F. November 2, 2019
It would really be great if you could share your references Ms. Ameliq.. This is a great reading.. Thanks..
 
greatpeople November 1, 2019
I love learning about history of many cultures. What a wonderful women. I'm African American and will share the story of Maria Orosa to my sons and ask my Filipino friends have they heard of her.
 
Nikky L. November 1, 2019
Thank you for sharing a history that gives me so much pride for
being a Filipina, and adding another depth to
our already rich culture!!!


 
John J. November 1, 2019
What a fascinating history! I shall recall it whenever I see banana ketchup, which is often. I am in a blended Filipino-American family., and banana ketchup is usually on the table.
 
NeverEverEverTrumper November 1, 2019
What a wonderful article. I'm sad to see the book is out of print.
 
Eric K. November 1, 2019
Me too.
 
SailingNewYorkCity November 1, 2019
This is a great story and very interesting. Thank you for sharing it and I hope others will read this inspirational story.

The question in the headline about why haven't we heard of her is rather strange. There are literally millions of people who have done interesting and even great things, but whom we have not heard of. This is the nature of human history. Thankfully there are many who bring these great stories to light, but the fact remains that history and society will continue to overlook many such people.
 
Eric K. November 1, 2019
I get your argument and like it, but it feels different when someone has directly influenced the literal saving of lives through an invention of their own.

It is unfortunate, you're right, that many people in history are overlooked—especially women. Which is why it's exciting to live in a time when their narratives are finally being uncovered by writers like Amelia Rampe who can give heroines like Maria the recognition they deserve.
 
A^19 November 1, 2019
Great article!
 
Joey S. November 1, 2019
That is why we have Mafran, coined from his name Ma gdalo Fran cisco. Our company is the mfr since the 90s.😊
 
Maria I. November 1, 2019
I'm so glad to had had a chance to learn about this remarkable woman! Thank you for the enlightenment.
I love banana ketchup and didn't know the history behind it. Thank you again
 
Jonathan H. November 1, 2019
She died from "fratricide?" Next time you copy from Wikipedia, do a little further research. She died from friendly fire, her own guys shot her by mistake.
 
joe_schmo November 1, 2019
Fratricide and friendly fire are the same thing.
 
SailingNewYorkCity November 1, 2019
They are not the same thing. Fratricide is the deliberate killing of one's sibling, whereas friendly fire is the killing or wounding of one's forces.

The deliberate killing or wounding of a member or members of one's own force is called fragging. The end result is that they are all different acts with different names.
 
SailingNewYorkCity November 1, 2019
Sorry for the multiple replies. For some reason they were not showing up so I entered my reply again, thus the multiple entries.
 
Eric K. November 1, 2019
Love a good word debate. Here's the third definition fo "fratricide" in New Oxford American: "the accidental killing of one's own forces in war."

Yet, when I look in Merriam-Webster, it's less clear and more implied metaphorically: "one that murders or kills his or her own brother or sister or an individual (as a countryman) having a relationship like that of a brother or sister." E.g. "The wolf symbolized the republic’s propensity for fratricide: our own Romulus and Remus saga, the high point of which culminated in the Civil War and its aftermath."

"As a countryman" is the interesting bit here, and the difference in intent between the definitions.

Depends on whom you're asking, I guess.
 
A^19 November 1, 2019
can't see the forest for the trees...
 
JCP_real November 1, 2019
Although the author does a tremendous job of using gender correct terms throughout, the proper term would technically be "sororicide" in this instance.
 
SailingNewYorkCity November 1, 2019
You raise some interesting and valuable points. Unfortunately there is a laziness and lack of precision that has pervaded society today, and this is a good example of it. I have some six or seven different English dictionaries for just this reason (In addition to the fact that a couple are specific to certain subjects, e.g. a dictionary of geography). The best dictionary I have is the one that is some fifty or sixty years old. It is the most accurate and provides the most precise definitions.

A good example of the imprecision I speak of the the oft misused phrase Begging The Question. What most mean when they say this is Raising the Question. Begging the question is actually almost archaic and means to use a circular argument/false proof. An example of this is thus: This is stupid, Why? Because it is dumb. Or something like this: Happiness is the highest value of all emotions. Why? Because all others are below it.
 
Anne T. November 1, 2019
The meaning of words and phrases does shift over time; that's why new dictionaries are published. To describe a half century out of date publication on A changing topic as "the most accurate" isn't correct. As a veteran, I assure you, fratricide is absolutely the correct term, widely used in even older military writing.
 
moderately M. November 1, 2019
Is banana ketchup still made using cancer-causing artificial color? The danger wasn't known back 80 years ago, but times have changed.
 
Helena November 1, 2019
I never ran out of banana ketchup but I was not aware of this brilliant inventor... now I know. It was just a name of street for me before , now her name for me is huge and should be known by Filipino people and the next generations to come.
 
Tara November 1, 2019
Though I had not heard of banana ketchup before, I am not surprised. Many Americans don't realize that ketchup does not have to be made from tomatoes. While visiting Colonial Williamsburg I bought a cook and much to my surprise found numerous recipes for ketchups that contained no tomatoes. One of my favorites is mushroom ketchup. I will have to get some banana ketchup to try with my Philippino sister-in-law.
 
stonefox116 November 1, 2019
It's ok, the only reason I know about banana sauce/ketchup is because I am filipino-american. It's quite sweet though, not like regular ketchup. I love it with scrambled eggs or fried chicken :)
 
PhoenixG November 1, 2019
Please don't think that the comment below is meant for you. There was another comment below among several others posted that were not very nice and I meant the comment below. The mean comment has since been removed and my comment is now out of context. If you thought it referred to you I sincerely, apologize.
 
Glenn J. November 2, 2019
The spicy variety is the only way to go!
 
Glenn F. November 1, 2019
Interesting other comment: "C J.October 27, 2019
BTW, stowaway story — although romantic — is a myth. My cousin Mario discovered the manifest of a Japanese ship (the Shidzuoka Maru) in which Maria Orosa is listed as arriving in the State of Washington on August 18, 1916." Sorry a bubble brused, but then isn't it God our Father in Heaven through the Holy Spirit that "enlightens" us and taking credit for our achievements ignores the reality inspiration from God should not be ignored.
 
Glenn F. November 1, 2019
I know of the need for some to collect admiration tags for their race, personally, and other associations. We've come a long way baby but some things like race, gender and other nits keep us divided. Hunt Ketchup as far as I know, and really what effect where she's from is germain to history. Washington Carver et. al. We are all children of God and HE has more to be credited with than one can imagine. It isn't the peron, but God the Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost that should be first to be thanked and acknowledged for any of our achievments. Come on!
 
BrooklynFood November 1, 2019
While it is true that concepts of race and gender may prove to be divisive in certain instances, the unfortunate reality is that historians have notoriously used them to diminish, restrict and, as is clearly the case with Ms. Orosa, omit the stories of individuals who have made great contributions to society. Our children need to learn about the vital role women of color have played throughout history not for the "admiration tags" as you mention, but for the inspiration that they too can break barriers and achieve so much more than what our collective cultures expect from them.
 
Glenn F. November 1, 2019
The point is we are all children of God and HE is our FATHER so how can WE TAKE UMBRANCE to someone else getting the limelight? What is the point a race, a nation, a family recognition? What about our own worth, and magnamity in sharing as a child of God and not as a child of selfish and grandizement? My point is we are all clhildren of God give GOD THE GLORY. Please don't misunderstand the worth of George Washington Carver, but he showed his talents openly and shared. This is pure I AM I AM and we know God is I AM.
 
Troy S. November 1, 2019
I think that is the problem we given too much and shared too much but we are still told that we have never done anything for the world or given ANYTHING of worth(which is the furthest thing from the truth) and we steadily believe this rubbish. And as far as all of us being children of God I question that one ALOT. Remember alot has been done in the name of thier God
 
schuylersister November 6, 2019
It's a little odd to bring up religion when commenting on a story that doesn't mention religion at all, on a site about food. It's even stranger to assume that everyone here is a Christian. One wonders why you feel the need to evangelize here on this story.