Rheeza Santiago Hernandez, in her photos from her social media account

BULAKAN, Bulacan–The province heritage food and ‘puni’ art prowess who is a proud daughter of this town had died of a lingering ailment. She was 51. 

Nicanora Teresa “Rheeza” Santiago Hernandez, who died on Tuesday in City of Malolos will be buried today, Sunday in Pitpitan cemetery in this town.

Rheeza as she was fondly called was survived by husband Jonathan Hernandez, daughter Nitey and son Dan and brother Nicky Santiago Sr., nieces, sister-in-laws and cousins. 

She had inherited the Filipino cuisine and culinary talents of her late aunt, Philippine food historian Mila “Tita Mila” Santiago Enriquez. She grew up with her family–late father Nicanor Santiago, late mother Fiel Josefina Borromeo Santiago and brother Nicky in Barangay Pitpitan. 

For more than three decades, she has been reliving the “Pamanang Kaluto ng Bayan” recipes of her Tita Mila while she infused twists to suit today’s modern Pinoy tastes. 

Enriquez’s Pamanang Kalutong Bayan book is a compilation of recipes of the country’s heroes and revolutionaries during the Philippine-Spanish-American and Japanese war. The book highlights the special meals and desert of our patriots and war heroes.

Bong Enriquez, a Bulacan theatre icon and son of the late food historian said his cousin Rheeza had standardized the quantities of ingredients in the recipes of his mother. 

“She put an exact quantity like one half teaspoon of salt, of pepper, etc. while in my mother’s book, it was only referred to as a pinch, like that,” (inistandardized niya ang mga recipes ng kasayasayan na nasa libro ng Pamanang Kaluto ng Bayan), he said. 

Since during her childhood, Rheeza had served as the right hand of Tita Mila during her cooking demonstrations, talks and guesting in and out of Bulacan including abroad.  Tita Mila came from the family of revolutionary heroes during Spanish time. Rheeza’s late father was the brother of Tita Mila. The Enriquez family hails from Barangay San Jose this town.

Among Tita Mila’s famous recipe which Rheeza continue to prepare were “nilasing na hipon,” “asado de carajay,” and “gurgurya,” as desert. What she recalls as difficult to prepare is the peanut brittle or the “dulce de pasensiya,” Rheeza said in a documented interview with her years ago. 

Rheeza’s mother was also active in food preparations and was a known cooking demonstrator during her time.

Joey Meneses Rodrigo, one of Bulakan’s history and tourism leader said Rheeza keeps the patriots and heroes recipes made and documented by her aunt through actual cooking demonstrations. 

“i will never forget her cooking demos of Kalutong Bulakeño. Lola Mila Enriquez documented the stories behind those dishes. Just like Lola Mila, Ate Rheeza would narrate these stories as she cooked. For example for ‘nilasing na mangga’, the dish was discovered when one day the Katipuneros of Bulakan were resting while having a snack of cerveza and sliced green mangoes, then all of a sudden they heard that a platoon of guardia civils were on their way to arrest them. As they hurriedly escape, they accidentally put the cerveza  and the green mangoes together in one jar. When the following day, they returned to the place, they found out the things they left behind including the green mangoes soaked in cerveza. They tasted the concoction and discovered what a delicious kaluto they accidentally made,” he told NEWS CORE. 

Rolly Marcelino, City of Malolos tourism officer brands Rheeza as “Keeper of Pamanang Kaluto ng Bayan” and an advocate of “puni,” and one of the contemporary cultural icons of Bulacan.

Puni is the art of weaving using paper and leaves of trees as adornment and decorations in different feasts and festivals. 

In the same documented interview, Rheeza said her real passion when she was just a kid was on arts and handicrafts. She recalled her elementary days in their house in Pitpitan where she and her playmates would weave leaves and make many figures from them including a harp, ball, etc. Tita Mila then encouraged her to unleash her passion on puni until she and fellow puni advocates officially launched the art in Bulacan in early 2000. 

Since then, all the cooking demonstrations of her aunt were decorated with puni. 

In 1998, she joined Tita Mila in Smithsonian Folklife in Washington DC where Philippine kitchen was featured.

Jaime Corpuz, a famous Bulacan heritage and history author and professor who owns the “Bahay Makabayan” museum in Marilao town hails Rheeza as the top contemporary woman culture, history and heritage prowess of Bulacan.

As a daughter, Rheeza will always be a pride of Bulakan. She graduated in elementary in Gen. Gregorio Del Pilar elementary school in this town in 1983 and Bulacan State University (formerly Bulacan College of Arts and Trades, BCAT) in Malolos in high school in 1987.