Nutrition advocate and writer Juana Manahan Yupangco’s budget cookbook, “Mesa ni Misis,” seems like David against the Goliaths of pricey books by Michelin-starred chefs. “Mesa ni Misis” is one of the four winners in the Best in the World-Vegetarian category in the prestigious Gourmand Awards. This international tilt is open to publishers with the aim of sifting the best of the food and wine books printed each year. The Top 4 winners in the many Gourmand categories represent entries in different languages. Aside from a Best in the World certificate, the winners can use their Gourmand Award seal to promote their works. The awarding ceremonies are always organized in a gastronomic capital. This year, the gala dinner will be held Nov. 29 at Les Cordeliers Convent in Paris, the site of the meetings for the French Revolution.
“Mesa ni Misis: A Guide to Cooking and Enjoying Native Vegetables” was a natural outcome of Yupangco’s lifestyle. There’s the oft-repeated story of how, while breastfeeding her son, she ate Moringa, a booster for mothers’ milk production. Weary of malunggay, she explored other greens such as the medicinal saluyot (jute leaves). This sparked her research on local vegetables and their benefits. She started experimenting by adding malunggay to cookies.
In 2017, she and her husband Rick experimented with a plant-based diet for health reasons and reaped the benefits. Eventually, their children, Jaime and Rosanna, followed their parents’ example. To fit the family budget, Yupangco resorted to cooking with native vegetables.
Yupangco is proud that her children are disciplined. In prepandemic children’s parties, they brought their own food and avoided the usual fare of hotdogs and barbecue.
Word spread about how Yupangco gave a new spin to native vegetable dishes, such that she was invited to collaborate with different restaurants.
“You could creatively prepare our vegetables outside of the usual pinakbet (mixed vegetables) and ginisa (saute),” she says.
Three years ago, while she was conducting a demo at Discovery Primea, media consultant and columnist Philip Cu-Unjieng saw the potential of a cookbook and consequently sought sponsors to support the project.
She wrote the book for ABS-CBN Publishing and undertook photo shoots in January 2020. Despite the delays due to the lockdowns and the shutdown of the ABS-CBN conglomerate, the book was launched in October. In six weeks, the first 3,000 copies were sold out.
ABS-CBN entered “Mesa ni Misis” in the Gourmand Awards. (Its other entry, “Simpol” by chef Tatung Sarthou, won in two categories: Easy Recipes at Home and Celebrity Chef-World.)
“Mesa ni Misis” takes a mother’s viewpoint on how to serve balanced meals with modest resources. It educates about the nutritional qualities of vegetables and dispenses such pointers as how to soak beans to make them digestible, kitchen flavorings and must-have spices. It covers appetizers, entrées, rice and noodles, desserts and drinks.
Anecdotes accompany the recipes. “I wrote a dedication to whoever inspired me to make the dish. I dedicated the kadyos-langka (pigeon peas and jackfruit) stew to our yaya who cooked it when we were growing up,” says Yupangco.
When ABS-CBN Publishing informed her that “Mesa ni Misis” was selected with three other European titles, Yupangco was astonished. “It hit me when the winners were announced in May,” she recalls when she heard of the other cookbooks in the Vegetarian category.
The cover of “Mesa ni Misis” is fuchsia, with the title, subtitle and blurbs rendered in different fonts. Reluctantly, the dolled-up author posed behind a colorful buffet of vegetarian food. This vibrant albeit busy layout appealed to the local mass market. The 40-recipe paperback costs P250 or $5, while the European books are in the range of $39 to $69.
On the other hand, the covers of the European books were rendered in soft color tones, highlighting a single dish. The photo of Swiss chef Tanja Grandijts, author of “Tanja Vegetarisch (Tanya Vegetarian),” photographed in her uniform behind white bowls of lettuce, is set against a mint green hardbound cover.
German chef Benjamin Maertz’s “Heimat Weite Welt (Home: Wide World)” features an off-white cover of an hors d’oeuvre atop a bird’s nest, photographed by Lukas Kirchgasser, one of the world’s best food photographers.
The cover of French chef/blogger Maud Vatinel’s “La Bretagne Vegetale (Vegetable Brittany)” is a tight shot of grilled vegetables with a creamy dip. The food styling, layout and photography follow exacting European standards in all these books.
Named Best Chef 2020 in Switzerland, Grandijts has earned two Michelin stars, and her “Tanja Vegetarisch” earned four book awards. Michelin-starred Maertz is a celebrity in Germany’s gastronomic scene. Vatinel is a freelance chef who caters healthy food and shares eco-friendly tips on her Instagram.
“I’m out of my league, I can’t believe I won against these other books,” says Yupangco, the only nonprofessional among the winners.
What sets “Mesa ni Misis” apart is its advocacy. While the other books focus on sensory delights and dishes for an affluent society, “Mesa ni Misis” addresses an underserved market. She interviewed parents of public school children to find out if they had kitchen equipment. The recipes take into consideration the family’s limited appliances.
“I wouldn’t include broccoli or carrots or use recipes that need a blender. I’d mash the food instead,” she maintains.
Fully sponsored yet again, “Mesa ni Misis” is now on its second print run, stamped with the Best in the World Gourmand Book Awards seal.
“Mesa ni Misis” is also an nongovernmental organization that promotes healthy alternatives to the oily, starchy and sugary Pinoy diet that results in heart disease and diabetes. Yupangco started the Mesa ni Misis educational program through MovEd Foundation in 2018. She spread the word on a plant-based diet in three Makati public schools. Through Binhi English Literacy Foundation, she conducted programs in a Tondo elementary school. One of her main talking points is the “Plantlasang Pinoy Plate,” a local version of food groups for a balanced vegetarian meal.
At the start of the pandemic, she launched two community programs: Kusina Connection served vegan meals to front-liners, at-risk communities and elderly homes. Market ni Misis was a mobile palengke of cheaper goods, done in partnership with Benguet farmers, Taguig Mayor Lino Cayetano and other local governments.
Today, Yupangco has been producing short videos on plant-based nutrition, meditation and arts for Makati’s biggest public school in Comembo, Makati. She continues online corporate webinars on native vegetables and nutrition.
Committed to her advocacy, Yupangco received a scholarship for a food security online course from the University of Edinburgh. For her graduate thesis, she is proposing a paper on cooking with Filipino vegetables.
“Mesa ni Misis” is available online on Shopee and Lazada, and in specialty stores such as Real Food and Vegan Grocer. The Kindle version is offered on Amazon.
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