Centenarian Helena Z. Benitez: Foodie at heart
At 100 years old, Helena Z. Benitez still has a big appetite for Filipino food.
In a rare culinary tribute celebrating her centenary last Monday at the family’s Mira-Nila ancestral house, Benitez filled her plate with pancit pusit and menudo with quesong puti stuffed in pan de sal. Before that, she had a warm bowl of pancit molo which she enjoyed sipping beside her good friend, former first lady Imelda Marcos.
The culinary tribute, organized by nephews and nieces led by Lyca Benitez-Brown and curated by respected food writer, cookbook author and restaurateur Amy Besa, showcased the delightful food of Laguna and Cavite, the hometowns of Benitez’s parents, Conrado Benitez and Francisca Tirona, respectively. The Benitezes are from Pagsanjan, Laguna; and the Tironas from Imus, Cavite.
There were also some dishes from the northern part of the country like Ilocos Sur and Abra that also had significance for the Benitez family.
“All the food prepared were very special to Tita Helen,” said Brown, daughter of Benitez’s brother Tomas. “It would have been much easier to just get a caterer, but we thought it would not honor Tita Helen’s long-time advocacy to be proud in being Filipino.”
Benitez has always been a champion of all things Filipino, from the Bayanihan (the “National Folk Dance Company of the Philippines” as declared by Congress) to Philippine Women’s University (PWU), which her mother founded in 1919. She still serves as board chair of PWU; chair emeritus of the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement and Bayanihan; and life member of the Girl Scouts of the Philippines.
“Tita Helen told us not to give her a big birthday celebration because she wanted to be able to mingle or interact with people,” said Brown. “So, we broke it up into small celebrations beginning with a tribute from the Girl Scouts, a serenade from the Bayanihan alumnae and the culinary tribute.”
On Friday, Benitez will be feted again at the PWU campus on Taft Avenue, Manila.
Brown and Besa collaborated on the menu for two months, doing extensive culinary research and touring around Laguna and
Cavite. They also tapped Cavite food historian and writer Ige Ramos in identifying important purveyors from the province.
The Mira-Nila courtyard was dressed elegantly for the strictly Filipino dinner. The beautiful white tent draping, accented with chandeliers, lent an intimate and romantic mood. Dining tables were decorated with fresh flowers and souvenir foldable fans with Benitez’s photo. Buffet tables were positioned strategically around the covered venue.
Delectable dishes from Cavite included pancit pusit prepared by Sonny Lua of Asiong’s Cavite City; menudo with quesong puti by Thelma Ampil and Cynthia Sico of Dasmariñas, Cavite; pan de sal courtesy of Aldrin Lim of Staple & Perk Bakery.
“Filipinos are very fond of matching and pairing food,” said Besa. “Cavite has the tradition of pairing menudo with quesong puti and stuffing it in pan de sal.”
A popular Cavite product, little flaky square biscuits called jacobina, was paired with quesong puti as part of the appetizers. Jacobina came from La Noceda Bakery, Cavite.
Assorted Cavite kakanin items were also a big hit that night—hopiang baboy, individually wrapped sapin-sapin, bibingkang pinipig
from Samala in Kawit, Cavite; and saba turon with langka and haleyang sampaloc by Sonny Lua.
There were also some noteworthy food items representative of Mira-Nila, such as pancit molo soup prepared by Wilma Campaner and Mama B’s Iced Tea by Felicidad D. Clemente.
“The recipes for the soup and iced tea were passed on to the next generation by Francisca,” said Besa.
Corazon Legaspi of Imus, Cavite, also served assorted achara—sayote and green papaya.
The Spanish paella and cochinillo were prepared by Mario’s in Quezon City, which is owned by the Benitez family.
“Tita Helen has always been very nationalistic,” added Besa. “Even before it was trendy to serve Filipino food, she would always find ways to serve and promote it. She would always serve dilis or puto when everybody was trying to be Western. This was many decades ago. She was way ahead of everyone. For that, she was a great inspiration.”
From Laguna, guests couldn’t get enough of ginataang hipon prepared by chefs Theodore Day Salonga and Mon Urbano of MonDay Chefs Restaurant Consultancy; and sinukmani with kilawin, kalumpit, burong mangga and toasted tomato chutney provided by Casa San Pablo courtesy of Vinya Gomez Alcantara and An Mercado Alcantara.
“An Mercado Alcantara explained that the way they prepare food in Laguna starts with the sawsawan (dips) and then they build their meal around that,” explained Besa. “The sawsawan
is more important than the meal, that’s why they use a lot of bagoong, tomatoes and soy sauce.”
To add variety to the menu selection, Besa also featured roast chicken with karimbuaya stuffing of Tina Papillon of Pamora Farm, Abra; and freshly made Vigan empanada by Queenie Savellano of Manang Q Empanada.
For her part as owner of Purple Yam (with a branch in New York, US, and soon to open in Malate, Manila), Besa and husband chef Romy Dorotan served grilled tanigue steaks with burnt coconut cream sauce.
The fish from Zamboanga was donated by former Gov. Al Tillah.
Chef Joseph Galvez also whipped up native greens and tops salad with citrus dressing.
“We are trying to move people away from lettuce,” said Besa. “Lettuce is so Western. We can replace it with native greens such as alugbati, saluyot, talbos ng sayote and mix them with pineapple, singkamas, melon or any local fruits.”
The gorgeous rectangular birthday cake (four-feet-by-10-inches in size), called Cake Tapestry and created by Ginny Roces de Guzman of Gustare, consisted of different flavors such as chocolate truffle, lemon, coffee and honeycake with cream cheese frosting, white chocolate and dried strawberries, pineapple, oranges and pistachio nuts.
Other food items served: Ice Cream Pops, Davao Chocolate and Buko Strings by Ian Carandang of Sebastian’s; Coffee Liqueur, Mango Rum Liqueur from Olive Limpe-Aw of Destileria Limtuaco; coffee and tea from Steve Benitez of Bo’s Coffee; and Kalamansi with Vodka Mojito and Fresh Ginger Ale by Besa of Purple Yam.
“These were all contributions of people who are close to the Benitez family and are also close to me,” said Besa. “Apart from Cavite and Laguna, we also featured other provinces to show that we all complement each other. Each of them is very distinct, but together they form one whole harmony. We wanted to show how deep and rich Filipino food is.”
E-mail the author at vbaga@ inquirer.com.ph