A writer and her simple pan de sal

‘I began imagining how it would feel if it was sold alongside cosmopolitan European breads’— Norma Chikiamco

Norma O. Chikiamco and her award-winning storybook for children, with its activity book newly released in the Philippines and Australia: Dreams come true in unexpected ways.

At a time when simple truths are junked in favor of falsehood, the Palanca Award-winning picture book for children, Pan de Sal Saves the Day, by Norma O. Chikiamco is like a life raft, for it reminds you about the values that we must pass on to our children if they are to build a good world. The story is about a girl of a family of simple means who shows her better-off classmates the love of simple joys that really matter in life—that comes at a time when the young are raised on brands even before they could discover sustainable values.

Pan de Sal, the girl, shows how her disadvantage is turned into an advantage, even as she navigates the world of the more affluent croissants, baguettes—it’s really a joyful tale in its simplicity. And it introduces children to the Filipino lifestyle that is taken for granted, if not going extinct, in this age of high-tech gadgets and instant gratifications.

The author is the founder and former editor of the pioneering food glossy, FOOD magazine, who has a weekly food column in Philippine Star, and is a contributor to

The activity book of her story/picture book was launched recently.

In her own words, here’s the making of Pan de Sal Saves the Day.—Editor

Actually I wrote Pan de Sal Saves the Day early in 1995—even before we started FOOD magazine.  That same year, in September 1995, it won first prize in the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature. Since we started FOOD that year I was very busy for several years.  After I left FOOD in 2008 I thought of going back to writing stories for children.  It was then that I asked Eric Oey, head of Periplus in Singapore, which published my series of mini cookbooks on Filipino cuisine (in 2003) if they would like to publish the Pan de Sal story as a story book/picture book for children.  Eric is also the head of Tuttle, an imprint of Periplus, which is based in the US and specializes in publishing books of Asian content.

Eric agreed to publish the book.  I found an illustrator, Mark Salvatus, to do the illustrations and we worked on it together.  The book was finally released in 2009.

I got inspired to write the book after I read about a bakery in Boracay that was selling all kinds of bread:  croissant, baguette, bread sticks, etc.  I was wondering if they sold pan de sal too.  Then I began imagining how a pan de sal would feel if it was sold alongside these cosmopolitan European breads.  Pan de sal is such a simple bread.  Would it feel inferior beside these other breads?

The idea kept swirling in my head,  until slowly a story began to form.  I wanted to write a story about a simple bread and how it must have felt beside the other types of bread.  After a while pan de sal the bread started to take the form of Pan de Sal the person.  At first I wasn’t sure how the story would develop but once I sat down and started writing the story, everything came together.

Sometimes in life your disadvantages could become your advantages 

One of the ideas I wanted to convey is that sometimes in life your disadvantages could become your advantages.  Because Pan de Sal didn’t have expensive toys, she just played with the simple, low-tech sipa, and she became very good at it.  As it turned out, with her skill at sipa, she was able to teach her classmates a new game, which kept them amused while they were stranded on the way home from the nature park.

Then there was her baon, which she was ashamed of.  The fish, the adobo, the rice and the bananas seemed like such humble food, compared to the baon of her classmates.  But when she shared it with them, her classmates actually loved the food.

Because Pan de Sal’s family couldn’t afford to buy television, they just listened to their mother sing folk songs every evening after supper.  Pan de Sal learned the songs from her mother, and when she sang those songs for her classmates and her teacher, they were so impressed.  This paved the way for her to finally have the courage to audition for the Glee Club, which was her dream.

I thought of doing the activity book at the height of the lockdown and the pandemic last year.  I love doing puzzles myself and I thought why not make puzzles based on the Pan de Sal story?  So I suggested it to the publisher Eric Oey and he agreed that it was a good idea.

I wanted readers to have a variety of puzzles to solve, so I made sure to put different kinds of activities, from word jumbles to crossword puzzles, from word search to cooking recipes.  I got Mark Salvatus, the same artist who did the illustrations of the first book, to also do the illustrations for the activity book. I also asked Raul Sunico, who’s a good friend, if he could do the piano arrangement for Leron Leron Sinta and it was a good thing he agreed.  He even did the English translation of the lyrics.  For the food photos, I asked Theo Zaragoza, the managing director of Resultado, to do the food styling.  Theo used to style for us in FOOD and he also did the styling for my cookbook, The Recipes I Love.    My daughters Pia, Lisa and even my husband Toti gave some valuable suggestions too.   So it was a lot of group effort to put the activity book together.

As for the grownups, someone told me that even though she could guess what would happen in the story, when those events did happen, it was still such a pleasant surprise. Another reader told me that he thought the story was “very original.”

The Pan de Sal Activity Book is already available in the Philippines and in Australia, and later  in the US.

Like Pan de Sal’s story, this book is the product of a “disadvantage” that turned into an “advantage.”  It all started when I was asked by a group to write a brochure on Boracay’s attractions.  They gave me a leaflet that mentioned a bakeshop by the beach that sold all kinds of sophisticated bread.  It was this that gave me the idea to write the story of Pan de Sal.  However, after a few meetings with this group, I never saw them again.  I don’t know what happened to them, but they never paid me for the brochure on Boracay that I had started to write for them.  Anyway, as disadvantageous as that was, it “gifted” me with the idea for the story of Pan de Sal.

Your dreams can come true in sometimes unexpected ways

I think one lesson kids can learn from the book is that your dreams can come true in sometimes unexpected ways.  Pan de Sal only wanted to amuse her classmates with her songs—but it turned out to be the road that paved the way for her to achieve her dream of joining the Glee Club.

For the Pan de Sal story book, I’ve had varying responses.  One woman in the US read the book to her grandchildren, who became very curious about the breads.  So after reading the book they went to a bakeshop and bought some of the breads mentioned in the book, such as croissant, muffin, doughnut.

In another family, the Pan de Sal book became the favorite bedtime story book of the children.  Later one of the kids admitted that they would choose the book for story telling at bedtime because the story was quite long, thus they could stay up longer (I don’t know if I should be flattered or humbled by this.)  After reading the book, another kid kept asking her mom to buy her sipa.  Then there was the little boy in Australia who, after reading the book, saw a boy who was chubby.  “Mom, he’s doughnut!” he exclaimed to his mother.

The book is available in Fully Booked ( and through Lazada and Shopee.   

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