Maria Regina Tolentino Newport, founder and first president of the Culinary Historians of the Philippines (CHOP), launches her first book entitled Coconut Kitchen: Appetizers and Main Dishes. Let’s get to know more of our latest #AnvilFood author, and see how she found her true passion late in life, and how she discovered the secret of coconuts.
Q: How did you start in the culinary industry? Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the said industry?
It was back in late 2003 when I attended my first cooking demo, given by a famous celebrity chef in Manila, that I had my epiphany. I had recently retired from the International Monetary Fund, and was looking for a new focus in my life. I inherited my cooking skill gene from my mother, and her mother before her, and it was at that cooking demo that I decided I wanted to become a better cook. My first logical step was to go to culinary school in the U.S., and doing so represented a huge career change for me, at the tender age of 55! I had found my true calling in the field of culinary arts.
Q: You have been a member of the Culinary Historians of Washington, DC (CHOWDC) as well as founder and president of CHoWDC’s sister organization, Culinary Historians of the Philippines (CHOP). Tell us something about these groups.
I discovered CHoWDC when I attended a recipe-book-writing workshop in Washington, D.C., which was conducted by a food editor who was a member. I enjoyed and learned so much from the organization’s food lectures and events, which focused on educating its members and the general public about the foodways of America and beyond. I thought that it would be wonderful to form a like-minded group in Manila, but focusing more on Philippine cuisine and my culinary heritage, at the same trying to find a way of giving back to society through a culinary advocacy. CHoWD gave me its blessing, and in 2011 I founded CHOP with a few friends and relatives. CHOP has grown by leaps and bounds since then, and now boasts a membership of more than 100. We have conducted numerous food tours around the country and staged lectures and workshops on Philippine cuisine and ingredients. There will be room in the future for the group to learn about the cuisines of other countries.
Q: Why do you think it’s important to trace a country’s culinary history?
For me, knowing your culinary heritage is key to finding out who you are and where your place is in the context of both family and community. Ours is a complex culinary history, and our cuisine is regarded as an amalgam of many foreign cultures, and through the centuries we have absorbed the many influences of these cultures. It is important for each generation of Filipinos not only to learn about this and to pass on the knowledge to the next generations. My children grew up in the U.S., but they have a strong Filipino identity, especially when it comes to their food tastes – they were raised enjoying the Filipino foods that I enjoyed growing up in the Philippines.
Q: What do you think makes Filipino cuisine stand out among other cuisines?
This has been the subject of heated debate in the last 10 or so years, and my position has remained the same — each country or culture with a strong culinary identity would not hesitate to say that their cuisine stands out among others. But, in the end, who is going to be the judge to validate that pronouncement?
Q: Let’s talk about your first published cookbook, Coconut Kitchen: Appetizers and Main Dishes. What sparked your interest in coconut?
The short answer is Dr. Conrado S. Dayrit, a highly respected scientist, cardiologist, and pharmacologist, among other distinctions in the sciences. He is best known for his virgin coconut oil (VCO) advocacy as a health food from the time of his pioneering clinical study on its positive effect on HIV-AIDS in the early 1980s. He has been conferred the title, “Father of VCO,” for spearheading national and global interest on Philippine coconut oil. He has authored the book, “The Truth about Coconut Oil – A Drugstore in a Bottle.” Reading this book was a big eye-opener for me, and it made me realize how much I did not know about the coconut and its many health benefits.
Q: What can readers expect from Coconut Kitchen? What makes it different from other cookbooks on coconut-based recipes, or other food literature dedicated to coconut?
There are countless books outside the Philippines that feature coconuts and their health benefits. Coconut Kitchen would be the first coconut cookbook published in the Philippines which is mainly targeted to the home cook, in that it features uncomplicated recipes that are easily to follow and replicate in the home kitchen. It also contains basic, but vital, information about the coconut and its health benefits, especially virgin coconut oil (VCO).
Q: What’s your favorite recipe from the book?
The one on the cover, the Roasted Shrimp with Coconut Sauce. This dish has everything going for it–it’s healthy, delicious and very easy to prepare and present attractively and it can be made ahead. This is one of my go-to dishes especially when I’m serving a crowd.
Q: What coconut-based dish do you love preparing for your family and friends?
I love preparing a great number of coconut dishes for family and friends, and I’m hard put to choose just one favorite dish – I like them all!
Q: Coconut Kitchen will be having a sequel—which we’re very sure our readers will be excited about. What can readers expect for the upcoming book?
It was at Anvil’s recommendation that I do a separate book on coconut desserts, so I will start focusing on that soon after my first book is launched. The cycle begins again, and I’m looking forward to the fun part of writing a cookbook, which is the testing, and re-testing, and re-testing of the recipes. The second book will largely feature desserts, both Filipino and international ones, but it will also have smaller sections on breakfast fare, snacks and drinks.
Any advice for future chefs and culinary historians?
The most important skill you should have in addition to being an excellent cook is an excellent command of the language you are writing the book in. And the most important virtues you should have are patience and perseverance.
Coconut Kitchen: Appetizers and Main Dishes is available for only P395 at National Book Store and Powerbooks Store, and online at www.anvilpublishing.com