A collage with food technologist Maria Orosa in black and white, a bottle of ketchup, bananas and black pots in the background.

442: Remembering Maria Orosa, food magician and war hero

How one Filipino activist changed an entire generation’s understanding of what a simple condiment could be

Maria Orosa invented banana ketchup, which has become a staple in Filipino kitchens.

Illustration by Vivian Lai

Words by Winter Qiu

The 442: A JoySauce column named after the military unit, designed to school you (in all the best ways) on accomplished Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders of the past. Asians have been shaping American history, culture, food, politics, identity, and more for centuries—it’s time we acknowledge what’s been left out of most textbooks.

Have a historical tidbit you’d like to share? Let us know!

How in the world do you make ketchup out of bananas? According to The New York Times, the ingredients are saba bananas, sugar, vinegar and other spices, and the concoction is perfected with a dash of red food coloring.

This unique tropical fruit ketchup was the result of the determination and hard work of one dedicated food technologist and activist: Maria Orosa (Nov. 29, 1892-Feb. 13, 1945).

Orosa was born in Taal, Philippines. She traveled abroad to the United States to pursue a bachelor’s and master’s degree in pharmaceutical chemistry through the University of the Philippines Manila and University of Washington. Instead of accepting a job to stay in Washington as an assistant chemist, she returned to the Philippines to study ways to improve the lives of her fellow country people.

Tomato ketchup is the norm in the rest of the world and before 1942, Filipinos preferred the taste of this condiment as well. However, tomatoes were expensive to import at the time, so Orosa made her own special kind of ketchup with bananas. Her invention has made a permanent impression on both Filipino cuisine and the palettes of Filipinos growing up. More than just a simple alternative to tomato ketchup, Orosa’s banana ketchup has become a symbol of pride for the Filipino people.

She used bananas because they could easily be grown in the Philippines’ tropical, maritime climate—showcasing Orosa’s ingenuity as a food scientist in inventing a condiment using local ingredients.

“In a Western kitchen, they would have chicken stock; for us, it would be banana ketchup and [the fermented seafood paste] bagoong and [the preserves known as] buro.”

In 1942, Orosa’s ketchup was mass produced and distributed across the Philippines. Banana ketchup has a thicker consistency compared to tomato ketchup and a sweet and tangy flavor suitable for omelets, chicken, and noodles. In the flavorful world of modern Filipino cuisine, banana ketchup reigns as a popular condiment and staple in the kitchen. In the words of Jordy Navarra, head chef and owner of the Filipino restaurants Toyo Eatery and Panaderya Toyo in Manilla, “In a Western kitchen, they would have chicken stock; for us, it would be banana ketchup and [the fermented seafood paste] bagoong and [the preserves known as] buro.”

Orosa’s ingenuity also translated onto the battlefield, where she worked as a soldier who smuggled nutrient-dense food to war prisoners. In the same year banana ketchup was produced across the Philippines, more than 3,000 Filipino and American civilians in the Santo Tomas Internment Camp starved at the hands of Japanese forces in Manila. During their imprisonment from 1942-45, the captives’ lives were sustained by Orosa’s Soyalac, a drink derived from soybeans, and Darak, a rice flour rich in vitamin B-1.

Orosa died at the age of 51, from shrapnel injuries she sustained during the Battle of Manila of World War II. In the end, her life was marked by gifts that improved people’s lives by leaps and bounds.

Nowadays, you can find traces of Orosa’s ingenuity in the form of red bottles in Filipino pantries everywhere, with a flavor as sweet as childhood and tangy as hardship—carrying Orosa’s legacy of love for her country, belief in perseverance, and community.

Published on February 13, 2024

Words by Winter Qiu

Winter Qiu is a first-generation Chinese American born in New York. When they're not playing board games or watching cartoons, they can be spotted in the wild with a cup of milk tea. They probably could've become a doctor like their parents wanted if they didn't like the creative arts so much, but then again, most likely not.

Art by Vivian Lai

Vivian Lai is an experienced L.A.-based graphic and UI designer with a proven track record of problem-solving for diverse clients across industries. She is highly skilled in design thinking, user experience, and visual communication and is committed to staying up-to-date with the latest design trends and techniques. Vivian has been recognized for her exceptional work with numerous industry awards.