January 10, 2011
Nora Daza, author, restaurateur
(from left) Pastry chefs Penk Ching and Bianca Santamaria created a rendition of Nora Daza's famous desserts, such as sans rival. Here with Daza herself and daughter Nina Daza.
Anyone who has had trouble cooking adobo or paella knows very well to turn their dog-eared copy of Nora Daza's Let's Cook with Nora for guidance. As one of the country's most successful cookbook authors Let's Cook with Nora has been reprinted several times since the first edition came out in 1965 Daza's name became synonymous to easy-to-prepare Filipino dishes, and her series of cookbooks became the household bible for anyone who wants to learn how to cook.
Her culinary experience spans 40 years. Hailed as the Julia Child of the Philippines, she has inspired women, even men, to master traditional Filipino dishes from their own kitchen, and even try out some foreign recipes.
She graduated from the University of the Philippines in 1952 with a degree in Home Economics. After which, she went to New York to take up master's degree, majoring in Restaurant and Institution Management at the Cornell University.
She may have traveled far and wide to be educated in different cuisines, particularly French cuisine, but this celebrated restaurateur, cookbook author, and cooking show host, credits her culinary flair to the delicious memories of her childhood.
"My earliest appreciation of good food I can trace back to my walks with my father, Alejandro Villanueva," she wrote in the preface of her biographical cookbook, A Culinary Life. "Sometimes it would be at dawn when we would go to a Chinese vegetable garden, and gather bunches of lettuce and green onions which we would make into a salad later. Other times it would be a walk to the bakery while the morning was still dark and we would wait for the bread to be brown, all the while inhaling the delicious aroma of baking bread.
With guest chefs during Dusit Thani Hotel's week-long buffet special which featured Nora Daza's sought-after dishes.
With her childhood spent mostly watching her parents and her aunts cook up a storm for family gatherings, it was only natural for the young Daza to pursue a culinary career. Furthering her education after Cornell, she flew to Paris to learn more about French cooking. Later on, she would reveal that the best years in her life was spent in the world-famous city.
"When I lived in Paris, the French didn't know Philippines, or where it was on the map," she shared to the media in a special tribute luncheon hosted by Dusit Thani Hotel. "So I decided to put up a Filipino restaurant in Paris. It was called Aux Iles Philippines (Philippine Islands)."
Her restaurant was the very first Filipino restaurant in Paris, serving French dishes infused with Filipino flavor. Determined to make Philippines known to Parisian diners, she served the French staple appetizer escargot with bagoong (fish sauce), luyang dilaw (turmeric) and coconut milk. It became one of the most popular dishes on the menu, along with lumpiang sariwa (vegetable roll).
In Paris, whenever a new restaurant makes a good impression, word gets around fast. And not long after, Aux Iles Philippines landed a feature story in the International Herald Tribune. It eventually earned recognition as one of the top Asian restaurants in Paris by the Micheline Guide in 1977 with a three spoon-rating.
With her French restaurant doing so well, Daza was inspired to open another restaurant, this time, in her homeland. Eager to introduce French cuisine to the Filipino restaurant crowd, she opened Au Bon Vivant in Manila, the first restaurant in the country to offer authentic French cuisine. She opened another dining place in Ermita, Manila, Galing Galing, which served Daza's most loved international dishes. As her business expanded, she decided to enter the US market, opening Maharlika Restaurant in New York City.
Always hungry for new adventures, not to mention, ventures, she began another chapter in her culinary career in the 1980s. On top of managing her restaurants, she took up an offer to host a television cooking show one of the first in the country, and one that would become part of every Filipino family's weekend TV viewing. Aired on Saturdays, "At Home with Nora" featured Daza whipping up dishes like Kare Kare effortlessly as though she was just making pancakes. Her cooking instructions were always spot on, and her recipes were simple, which pretty much explain why the show lasted for more than decade. A few years later, the show had a spin-off entitled "Cooking it up with Nora."
She may have become a household name because of her cooking shows, but what cemented her work as the icon of Filipino home-cooking was the release of Let's Cook, which was a compilation of her favorite and highly recommended dishes.
Daza's very first cookbook, Let's Cook with Nora, has been reprinted several times since its first publication in 1965.
Before Let's Cook came out in 1965, Daza selected recipes that she believed were familiar to the Filipino palate and were easy-to-prepare. Almost half of the recipes in the book were of Spanish origin, proof that she may have shared some of her family's most treasured recipes. There was a recipe for Batangas Adobo, for Kare Kare, and for Chicken Binakol, to name a few.
Let's Cook became an instant hit, selling 500,000 copies during the early years when it came out. Daza followed it up with Galing galing Philippine Cuisine: Food as prepared in Philippine homes, in the '70s, which featured localized American dishes. This meant that the ingredients used in American recipes the likes of meat loaf, baked ham or macaroni were substitute ingredients that were easily sourced in the Philippines.
A culinary life
To commemorate her two decades in the food business, Daza collaborated with food writer Michaela Fenix to produce A Culinary Life in 1992, 30 years after her first cookbook. In this biographical cookbook, each recipe begins with Daza's anecdotes, adding colorful memories and a little bit of history to each dish.
In the book, Daza explained that her love affair with cookbooks began early on, having been exposed to secret recipes that her family has kept throughout the years. In fact it was from reading through these recipes that she said she developed an uncanny ability to memorize a recipe right away. "I can usually tell whether the dish will turn out good or bad without having to kitchen-test," she wrote.
Her collection of cookbooks was her source of inspiration. Her favorite tomes were classic cooking manuals such as Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer, Fanny Farmer, also known as the Boston Cookbook, and the local Singalong-San Andres Cookbook. The latter was a post-war collection of family recipes by the women who lived along the Singalong-San Andres areas in Manila. These were compiled by Daza's aunts, Mariquita Villanueva Adriano, and Rosario Kalaw de Roxas.
Now at 82, one would think that she is done sharing recipes to those who want to experience the joy of cooking. But her culinary journey, as it turns out, is far from over. In fact, this year, she is yet to publish another cookbook, also co-written by Fenix, entitled Festive Dishes of Nora Daza and Friends, which will include recipes that she and her friends share with each other.
"Once in a while, I have been pleasantly surprised with a recipe I thought would turn out bad. Those occasions only serve to remind me that one never really stops learning especially in the world of cooking," she said.
In November 2010, Dusit Thani Hotel ran a week-long buffet special (from November 26 to December 3, 2010) which featured Daza's sought-after dishes. The menu was offered at Dusit's all-day restaurant, Basix.