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Ambrosia: the Colonial Root of Filipino Fruit Salad



It’s September. In the country with reputedly the longest Christmas season in the world, the countdown has begun. People look forward to noche buena and traditional holiday dishes including the most important Christmas dessert. Fruit salad. I wonder how many realize how deep its colonial roots go.

Ambrosia: the Colonial Root of Filipino Fruit Salad

I’ve read about ambrosia salad before. It always looked strangely familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. The fruits and coconut made it a sibling of Filipino fruit salad. But nuts and marshmallows? We don’t add those to our fruit salad. I wanted to know the difference between the two. The flavors. The mouth feel. It was also a good opportunity to use the dried coconut that we bought in Saigon. Just maybe I could even write a recipe for ambrosia salad.

As the photos show, we did make ambrosia salad and it’s not something we’ll be making again at home. Hell, no. Never again. Still, I was intrigued with the characteristics it shares with Filipino fruit salad so I started researching its background. At the back of my mind, I was sure that the similarity between the two is not a coincidence. But I wanted to know how deep the rabbit hole goes, so to speak. The journey to establish the connection between the two proved to be fascinating and unpleasant at the same time.

Yes, ambrosia salad is the ancestor of Filipino fruit salad. The birth of the latter is tied with American colonial rule in the Philippines. It is also tied, more remotely, to 1) the Manila Galleon trade during the Spanish colonial rule in the Philippines, and 2) the cessation of California, Nevada, Utah, most of New Mexico and Arizona, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming to the United States after Mexico lost the Mexican-American War.

It’s not hard to figure all that out. Just think of 1) coconut and 2) fruit cocktail, and the rest is just a matter of connecting the dots.


Shredded coconut is an integral ingredient of ambrosia salad. The fruits or combination of fruits may vary but coconut is a mainstay.

Citing Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, John F. Mariani [Lebhar-Friedman:New York] 1999, says: “…dried coconut meats were known to American cooks at least since 1830 and that in the early part of the twentieth century they were extremely popular.”

Yet, coconut is not native to America. How did coconut find its way into America cuisine?

Via Mexico.

There are theories that seafaring Austronesians might have been responsible for the introduction of coconut outside the Pacific region. There are also theories that the coconut being buoyant and water resistant, coconuts could have floated on the ocean and survived travel of thousands of miles via marine currents to finally germinate on land on the opposite side of the Pacific Ocean.

But they’re theories, so I’ll skip all that.

What is established by historical evidence is that for two hundred and fifty years, from 1565 to 1815, Spanish ships linked two of its colonies — Mexico and the Philippines. Goods from Asia, including coconuts, were transported from Manila to Mexico and, from there, sold either in Spanish colonies in the Americas or shipped farther to Europe. Truth be told, more than “goods” were loaded and traded via the Manila Galleons. Slaves from Asia were transported to Mexico as well. Then, on the voyage back, the galleons were loaded with goods coming from the Spanish colonies in the Americas — including silver, tobacco and chocolate — as well as goods from Europe and Africa.

Ingredients for making ambrosia salad
Ingredients for ambrosia salad including dried coconut

So, the Spaniards shipped coconuts to Mexico. But how did they end up in American kitchens?

Prior to February 2, 1848 when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed ending the Mexican-American War, California, Nevada, Utah, most of New Mexico and Arizona, and portions of Colorado and Wyoming were parts of Mexico.

In other words, “coconut in Mexican kitchens” became “coconut in American kitchens” after boundaries were redrawn and redefined following the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

In 1898, half a century after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the United States colonized the Philippines. It might stand to reason that, along with other American food, ambrosia salad could have been introduced to the Philippines as early as 1898. Could have been. But it’s doubtful that the Filipino fruit salad was born that early.

Canned Fruit Cocktail

Filipino fruit salad is traditionally made with canned fruit cocktail.

Prior to the American colonial period, canned food was practically unknown in the Philippines. Yes, food preservation was already being practiced (did you know that cooking meat into adobo was actually a method of lengthening the shelf life of meat during the pre-refrigeration era?) but food in sealed cans was something that America brought to our shores.

The invention of canned food is closely associated with war. Canned food was developed to transport food that did not easily spoil to feed soldiers. The earliest attempts go back to the Napoleonic Wars during the early part of the 19th century. At that time, canning was both a laborious and expensive process.

In the United States, large scale wars during the 19th century, including the Civil War, boosted the food canning business. During World War I, canned food production soared as a result of high demand to feed soldiers posted overseas.

Was canned fruit cocktail introduced by the Americans to the Philippines during World War I? Even earlier, actually, and even while the Philippine-American War was raging. That was the time when history professor Bernard Moses was appointed member of the U.S. Philippine Commission (1900 to 1902).

Moses brought his wife, Edith, to the Philippines. Edith, with her condescending air of White superiority, wrote a book, Unofficial letters of an official’s wife, where she mentioned canned food more than once as she preferred it over local produce which, she feared, was too unsanitary. There is a specific reference to her preference for canned fruit over fresh local mangoes.

So, yes, American canned fruit was already in the Philippines prior to World War I. But, apparently, during the early decades of American colonial rule in the Philippines, food stuff brought in from America was only accessible to Americans living in the Philippines and the “elite” they were hobnobbing with.

Ambrosia salad with fresh and preserved fruits, dried coconut and marshmallows

It was the aftermath of World War II that made canned fruit cocktail salad a fixture in Filipino homes.

The Philippines gained “independence” from the United States after World War II. But the Americans never really left. American culture had taken deep roots in the Philippines. An education system patterned after the American model was in place. So were Clark Air Base and Subic Naval Base.

The presence of the bases meant the continued presence of American military personnel in the Philippines. And that, in turn, meant the continuous influx of American food, canned and otherwise, to feed the Americans with flavors from home. American supply surplus, food and non-food, was sold in what came to be known as PX (post exchange) stores inside and outside the bases.

A new Filipino middle class, educated American style, was hungry for PX goods. Home economics lessons have inculcated in the minds of the Filipinos that processed food, including canned food, was superior and more sanitary than fresh food available in the local markets. Those who could afford the prices frequented the PX stores where they bought canned food from America. I KNOW because my parents and parents-in-law, and their contemporaries, were among those regular customers.

This middle class, wittingly or unwittingly, became a role model for the rest of the Filipino people. Their insatiable appetite for American goods was emulated. But because of the huge discrepancy between the price of American goods and the buying capacity of the average Filipino, American food, including canned fruit cocktail, was reserved for special occasions.

Throughout my childhood, and even after I was no longer a child, Christmas and New Year were never without fruit salad made with canned fruit cocktail. At our house, at my grandparent’s house, at the house of uncles and aunts…

For a long time, I accepted its presence as being part of Christmas tradition. Not until later, much later when I was already a mother and we had moved into our own house, did I wonder why, with the abundance of fresh fruits throughout the year, we were making fruit salad with canned fruit. Time to put an end to all that nonsense.

Do I feel any tinge of regret or bitterness in admitting that fruit salad is not as Filipino as most like to think?

No. Because I loathe fruit salad made with canned fruits. I always have even as a child.

And there is no recipe for ambrosia salad — now or in the future. Writing a recipe means recommending the dish but my family hated ambrosia salad. The marshmallows ruined the experience for us.

Truth be told, I hate ambrosia salad and Filipino canned fruit cocktail salad equally.