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Why There's Food in Nearly Every Scene of Chicago Native Mia P. Manansala's New Mystery

Daniel Hautzinger
Author Mia P. Manansala and her book Homicide and Halo-Halo. Photo: Jamilla Yip Photography;  Cover Design: Vi-An Nguyen
There's lovingly described food in quite possibly every scene of Chicagoland author Mia P. Manansala's new mystery, 'Homicide and Halo-Halo.' Photo: Jamilla Yip Photography; Cover Design: Vi-An Nguyen

Be prepared to have a sudden urge to eat Filipino food when you read Homicide and Halo-Halo. The new novel from Chicagoland-based author Mia P. Manansala may be a mystery, but there is lovingly described food in quite possibly every single scene. The only thing that will stop you from turning pages to learn whodunit is an overwhelming desire to eat some delicious chicken adobo, a hearty tocilog breakfast, or the titular halo-halo, an icy mixed dessert.

That’s because Lila Macapagal, the amateur sleuth protagonist, is a baker in the process of opening a café with two friends and needs to develop new recipes, while her aunt and grandmother run a Filipino restaurant and are constantly making and serving food for Lila and her friends. When a dead body shows up during a beauty pageant that Lila is judging, she sets out to discover the truth—but a delectable treat is always near at hand, ready to facilitate conversation with a possible source of information.

Homicide and Halo-Halo, due out February 8, is the second book in a projected six (for now) of the Tita Rosie’s Kitchen Mystery series, named after the restaurant of Lila’s aunt. The first, Arsenic and Adobo, came out last May. Manansala wrote the entirety of Homicide and Halo-Halo last year, and is already far along in the process of publishing the third, Blackmail and Bibingka—so read fast.

Despite the speed with which she writes and the apparent ease with which she invents cases to be solved, Manansala didn’t necessarily picture herself as an author until recently—and definitely didn’t think she would be writing mysteries. “Mysteries seemed so hard,” she says with a laugh, although she had always enjoyed reading them. But when she signed up for a short workshop in Chicago on mystery-writing, mainly because it was affordable, she discovered with the encouragement of her teacher Lori Rader-Day that she had a talent for assembling engrossing whodunits.

She had been working in education at the time, having spent several years teaching English in South Korea before returning home to Chicago. She eventually wrote the first novel of another mystery series but was unable to get a publisher to buy it and decided to try a fresh start with the Tita Rosie’s Kitchen series. The first line of Arsenic and Adobo came to her out of nowhere on a train, setting off the whole story. It became her debut published novel.

Manansala emphasizes the importance of the support of an established mentor to guide her through the obscure world of getting a book published as well as working through the travails of the writing process. In her case, it was the mystery novelist Kellye Garrett, with whom she began working in 2017. Now they mentor writers together, and Manansala herself offers her services as a book coach, wanting to pay it forward and help other writers, especially women of color, succeed—as she has been encouraged and supported in her own career by Garrett and Rader-Day.

Just as Manansala wants to help expand the kinds of people who become published authors through her book coaching, she also broadens the worlds that have typically been depicted in mysteries through her own books. Growing up in the predominantly Latino neighborhood of Hermosa on Chicago’s Northwest Side, she didn’t have a large Filipino community beyond her own multigenerational family, but her sleuth Lila grew up in a community of gossipy Filipino godmothers and rival cousins while working in her aunt’s restaurant, which also hosts rowdy karaoke nights.

Her books include a glossary and pronunciation guide of Filipino food and Tagalog phrases as well as recipes for some of the dishes Lila makes or enjoys. Although the fictional setting of Shady Palms is a small, friendly town of the kind familiar to fans of cozy mysteries and other genres, it is notably more diverse. Lila’s life includes some common pop culture tropes such as the romantic comedy and a love triangle, but Manansala made a point of showing romantic relationships between non-white characters, while Lila’s best friend is in a committed lesbian relationship.

Noting that many of the books by writers of color that get published are about “trauma”—featuring stories that she says are necessary and important to tell—Manansala also wants to include everyday stories of the kind that are afforded to white characters without a thought. A Filipino protagonist can have an adorable dachshund named Longganisa, adore The Eagles, and struggle to open up to her friends; a Korean dentist can be awkwardly cute and play guitar while trying to quietly express his romantic interest; a Black character can be a life coach and fitness instructor interested in entrepreneurship.

Part of the reason Manansala pays such attention to food in her novels—apart from the fact that Arsenic and Adobo revolves around a murdered food critic—is that she believes a character’s approach to food can reveal a lot about them. For Tita Rosie, “food is her love language,” Manansala says. She’s always preparing dishes for her loved ones, putting extra effort in when trying to effect a reconciliation or attempting to comfort Lila with a beloved dish her mother would make. Lila herself bakes to think over complicated situations and calm herself; when she fails with several recipes in a row, it’s obvious that she’s stuck outside the kitchen as well.

Manansala’s father was the cook in the family; she still struggles to find or recreate Filipino food that is as delicious as she remembers his to be. She, like Lila, is an avid baker, whipping up experimental batches of treats combining Filipino flavors with American recipes for her relatives to try when they all visit her house in the suburbs. (“Procrastibaking,” as she calls it.) “There’s no way I could eat dozens of cookies on my own, so I love when people come over and I can make them try them,” she laughs. It’s her own recipes that are included in her books and on her website.

It’s a good thing they’re available. If you can make it through Homicide and Halo-Halo without snacking or trying your hand at Lila’s ube crinkle cookies, kudos to you. Your willpower is much stronger than ours.