With a growing awareness of the cultural and social value of food, and conscious now of its influence over not just the body but also on the mind and soul, we are now recognizing major figures in our culinary heritage beyond 1980s cooking show icon Nora Daza. One important culinary figure is Teresita Reyes, fondly called Mama Sita. Her children have been at the forefront in recognizing her contributions to the gastronomic landscape of the Philippines as well as to its cultural life, and many are following suit.
In March 2013, a commemorative stamp in her honor was launched at the Old Senate Session Hall of the National Museum of the Philippines in Manila, further cementing her place in cultural history. On Aug. 15, a modest exhibit on her life and legacy was unveiled by her fellow kababayans in Malolos City, Bulacan.
“Bilang isang tagapagtaguyod ng kakayahan ng kababaihan—at noong mga panahon na tinatapos ko sana ang aking doctorate sa History sa UP—ako ay mahilig pa sa pagsulat ng kasaysayan, lalo na ng mga sinaunang Filipina na sumangkot sa pulitika o sa kalakalan tulad ng sinaunang suffragettes na Filipina, o ni Helena Benitez ng PWU at si Salud Tesoro ng Tesoro’s na tubong Bulakan din—aaminin ko na sina Aling Asyang at Mama Sita ay aking nakaligtaang bigyan ng pansin. Malaki ang aking panghihinayang sapagkat hilig ko ang kapanayamin ang mga ito sana habang buhay pa at sariwa pa ang gunitain ng nakaraan,” (As a champion of the abilities of women—and when I was finishing my doctorate in History at UP—I was fond of writing histories especially of early Filipina involved in politics or business like the early Filipina suffragettes or Helen Benitez of PWU and Salud Tesoro of Tesoro’s who is also from Bulacan—I admit I failed to take notice of Aling Asyang and Mama Sita. I have lots of regrets because I have wanted to interview them when they were alive, when their memories were still fresh.) revealed Mary Grace Tirona, executive director of the Commission on Filipino Overseas, and schoolmate of Mama Sita’s daughter Clara Reyes Lapus, who gave the keynote address during the launching.
Many historians and writers now may feel the same way. Back then, cooking and food were not “serious” topics for papers and articles. Fortunately, Mama Sita’s descendants preserve whatever she left behind and continue the passion for cooking and food, making the Reyes family illustrious when it comes to culinary matters, producing cooks, chefs, foodies and food experts.
|Family members of Mama Sita were present to accept the distinct honor, namely, (from left) Ramon Reyes, Rosie Lardizabal, Chi Tulao, Engracia Lim, Aida Rejano, Peach Reyes, Clara Lapus and Joyce Sandoval|
The exhibit is aptly housed in a historical structure, the Casa Real, at the second-floor Paseo del Congreso, near the equally historic Malolos Cathedral and the Barasoain Church. Titled “Mama Sita: Kababayan, Ina, Kusinera,” the exhibit was unveiled in line with the celebration of Araw ng Bulakan, the founding anniversary of the culturally rich province just outside Metro Manila. Mama Sita joins the stellar roster of artists, heroes and prominent figures of Malolos.
The exhibit is presented by the Malolos Heritage Society, spearheaded by Lydia Yupangco, Marides Fernando and Charito Reyes, the civic arm of the Malolos Elite Club whose members are scions of prominent Malolos families. Its past presidents included Lydia Reyes-Yupangco, Lydia Balatbat-Echauz, Zeny Hipolito-Tengco and Dez Bautista. Many of its female members are descendants of the women of Malolos addressed by Dr. Jose Rizal.
Mama Sita is now known as the brand name and face of food products, mostly mixes and sauces for popular Filipino food. The exhibit, which is on display until the end of the year, provides a glimpse of the remarkable person behind the name. Also included is a brief and cursory history of Filipino food.
Mama Sita was born in 1917 in Tondo. Her mother was Engracia Cruz-Reyes, the founder of The Aristocrat restaurant.
“Kaming lumaki sa mga panahon na ang Aristocrat ang tanging puntahan, ‘di kaila na hanggang ngayon nanariwa pa sa aming guni-guni ang dinadayo naming kapag nananabik sa kanilang kilalang lutuin—barbecue, arroz caldo, club sandwich, dinuguan at marami pang iba,” (We who grew up in a time when The Aristocrat is the only dining destination, it is undeniable that their famous dishes that we crave for are still fresh on our minds—barbecue, arroz caldo, club sandwich, dinuguan and many more.) Tirona related. “Itinuloy ni Mama Sita ang itinatag na kaugalian at hilig sa pagluluto ng pagkaing katutubo ng kanyang ina. Ngunit dinagdagan pa niya ito ng makabagong pamamaraan na ang angkop sa daloy ng buhay natin ngayon,” (Mama Sita continued the established ways and passion for cooking native dishes of her mother. But she added a modern method that is apt for our lifestyle now.) she related.
Her life one can describe as ordinary but that fact makes it endearing, something many can relate to or can be nostalgic about. Her workaday forays are charming and even inspiring. People will realize how the ordinary become extraordinary, just as food becomes a fascinating thing when the heart and mind are open. The exhibit shows historical cultural milieus along with images of celebrations and togetherness brought by food.
Mama Sita’s passion for food and cooking made her life even noteworthy. She constantly compiled recipes, went abroad to know different dishes as well as promote Filipino food, and experimented in cooking and preparing good food. Tirona noted the ability of Mama Sita to raise nine children and to devote herself to cooking as well as the good training and education she as well as Mama Sita and her daughters and nieces acquired from St. Theresa’s College.
While abroad, she noticed how Filipinos lack ingredients to cook Filipino food. Thus, she came out with a line of products, which is now one of her important legacies.
|The commemorative stamp on Mama Sita launched last March|
“Dahil sa aking tungkulin sa Komisyon ng mga Filpino sa Ibayong Dagat, mas matindi sa aking pananaw ang naiambag ni Mama Sita sa ating mga mamayan sa ibang bansa na maaring hindi kapansin-pansin sa marami,” (Because of my work at the Commission on Filipinos Overseas, I think Mama Sita’s contributions to overseas Filipinos are very important, which many may not notice.) Tirona further said. “Masasabi ko na ang sangkap na galing sa Mama Sita ay napakatindi ang kahalagahan sa pananatili ng kanilang katauhan bilang ‘datihang’ o kasalukuyan pa ring Filipino.” (I can say that the ingredients from Mama Sita are very important in maintaining their identity as “former” or current Filipino.)
She concluded: “Salamat kay Mama Sita—sinadya man o hindi—naagapan ang kahirapan na dulot ng makabagong kabuhayan sa loob at labas ng Filipinas. Wala na tayong panahon magtalop ng bawang, sibuyas at luya. Wala na tayong panahong magtanim ng sili o atsuete sa ating bakuran kung maroon pang bakuran. Wala na tayong panahon magmatamis ng bayabas, santol o mangga kahit na nga magkayod ng niyog!” (Thank you to Mama Sita—deliberately or not—for easing the hardship of modern living. We now don’t have time to peel garlic, onion and ginger. We don’t have time to plant chilli or annatto in our backyard, if we even have a backyard. We don’t have time to preserve guavas, santol or mango, even to grate coconuts!)
On the other hand Leonarda Reyes-Tulao, eldest daughter of Mama Sita, said on behalf of the Reyes family that they are glad to share the vision of Mama Sita because “food binds families and friends” and “allows humanity to live in harmony.”
With Mama Sita’s products, Filipinos are able to keep their culinary heritage, affirming Mama Sita’s role in nation-building. For Filipinos abroad, Mama Sita’s products are not just ingredients and sauces but also comfort and memories coming from packets and bottles.