Nutrition advocate and writer Juana Manahan Yupangco’s budget cookbook, “Mesa ni Misis,” sounds like David vs. the Goliaths from expensive books by Michelin-starred chefs. “Mesa ni Misis” is one of the four winners of the Best Vegetarian in the World category at the prestigious Gourmand Awards. This international slant is open to publishers to sift through the best food and wine books printed each year. The 4 winners of the Top 4 in the many Gourmet categories represent entries in different languages. In addition to a Best in the World certificate, winners can use their Gourmand Award seal to promote their work. The awards ceremony are always organized in a gastronomic capital. This year, the gala dinner will be held on November 29 at the Couvent des Cordeliers in Paris, the meeting place of the French Revolution.
“Mesa ni Misis: A Guide to Cooking and Enjoying Native Vegetables” was a natural outcome of Yupangco’s way of life. There is the oft-repeated story of how, while breastfeeding her son, she ate Moringa, a stimulant for mothers’ milk production. Tired of malunggay, she explored other green plants such as medicinal saluyot (jute leaves). This sparked his research into local vegetables and their benefits. She started experimenting with 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 local vegetables.
Yupangco is proud that her children are disciplined. At pre-pandemic children’s parties, they brought their own food and avoided the usual hot dog and barbecue dishes.
Word spread about how Yupangco gave a new twist to native vegetable dishes, so she was asked to collaborate with different restaurants.
“You can creatively prepare our vegetables outside of the usual pinakbet (mixed vegetables) and ginisa (stir-fry),” she says.
Three years ago, while conducting a demo at Discovery Primea, media consultant and columnist Philip Cu-Unjieng saw the potential of a cookbook and therefore sought out sponsors to support the project.
She wrote the book for ABS-CBN Publishing and undertook photo ops in January 2020. Despite delays due to lockdowns and the shutdown of conglomerate ABS-CBN, the book was launched in October. In six weeks, the first 3,000 copies were sold out.
ABS-CBN presented “Mesa ni Misis” at the Gourmand Awards. (Her other entry, Chef Tatung Sarthou’s “Simpol,” won two categories: Easy Recipes at Home and Celebrity Chef-World.)
“Mesa ni Misis” takes a mother’s perspective on how to serve balanced meals with modest resources. It provides information on the nutritional qualities of vegetables and provides advice such as how to soak beans to make them digestible, cooking flavors and essential spices. It covers entrees, entrees, rice and noodles, desserts and drinks.
Anecdotes accompany the recipes. “I wrote a dedication to the one who inspired me to make the dish. I dedicated the kadyos-langka (silver pea and jackfruit) stew to our yaya who cooked it when we were young” , explains Yupangco.
When ABS-CBN Publishing informed her that “Mesa ni Misis” was selected along with three other European titles, Yupangco was amazed. “It hit me when the winners were announced in May,” she recalls when hearing about the other cookbooks in the vegetarian category.
The cover of “Mesa ni Misis” is fuchsia, with the title, subtitle and blurb rendered in different fonts. Reluctantly, the make-up author posed behind a colorful buffet of vegetarian dishes. This vibrant but busy layout appealed to the local mass market. The 40-recipe paperback costs P250 or $ 5, while European books are between $ 39 and $ 69.
On the other hand, the covers of 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)’, pictured in her uniform behind bowls of white lettuce, is placed on a mint green cardboard blanket.
“Heimat Weite Welt (Home: Wide World)” by German chef Benjamin Maertz features an off-white cover of an appetizer atop a bird’s nest, photographed by Lukas Kirchgasser, one of the best photographers culinary world.
The cover of “La Bretagne Végétale” by French chef / blogger Maud Vatinel is a tight shot of grilled vegetables with a creamy dip. Food styling, layout and photography follow rigorous European standards in all of these books.
Named Switzerland’s Best Chef 2020, Grandijts won two Michelin stars and his “Tanja Vegetarisch” won four literary awards. Michelin-starred Maertz is a celebrity on the German food scene. Vatinel is an independent chef who offers healthy dishes and shares eco-responsible tips on her Instagram.
“I’m out of my league, I can’t believe I won against these other books,” said Yupangco, the only non-professional among the winners.
What sets “Mesa ni Misis” apart is its advocacy. While the other books focus on sensory delights and dishes for the affluent society, “Mesa ni Misis” is aimed at an underserved market. She interviewed parents of children in public schools to find out if they had cooking equipment. Recipes take into account limited household appliances.
“I wouldn’t include broccoli or carrots or use any recipes that require a blender. I would mash the food instead, ”she argues.
Once again fully sponsored, “Mesa ni Misis” is in its second draw, stamped with the Best in the World Gourmand Book Awards label.
“Mesa ni Misis” is also a non-governmental organization that promotes healthy alternatives to the oily, starchy and sugary Pinoy diet that leads to heart disease and diabetes. Yupangco started the Mesa ni Misis educational program through the MovEd Foundation in 2018. She spread the word about a plant-based diet in three public schools in Makati. Through the Binhi English Literacy Foundation, she ran programs at a primary school in Tondo. One of his main topics of discussion 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 frontline people, at-risk communities and nursing homes. Market ni Misis was a mobile palengke of cheaper produce, made in partnership with the farmers of Benguet, the mayor of Taguig Lino Cayetano and other local governments.
Today, Yupangco produced short videos on nutrition, meditation, and the herbal arts for Makati’s Largest Public School in Comembo, Makati. She continues the online business webinars on native vegetables and nutrition.
Engaged in his advocacy, Yupangco received a scholarship for an online food safety course from the University of Edinburgh. For her final thesis, she offers an article on cooking with Filipino vegetables.
“Mesa ni Misis” is available online at Shopee and Lazada, and in specialty stores such as Real Food and Vegan Grocer. The Kindle version is available on Amazon.