Aficionados of cozy mysteries are in for a treat with Mia P. Manansala’s Tita Rosie’s Kitchen series starring a Filipino-American main character, the inadvertent sleuth Lila Macapagal.
Set in the small fictional town of Shady Palms, Illinois, two hours outside Chicago, the series revolves around Lila’s adventures solving the murders that come her way, with the help of her network of nosy aunts – Tita Rosie and Ninangs April, Mae, and June; her barista best friend Adeena, and her trusty dachshund Longganisa.
Like quite a few cozy series, this one focuses on food – specifically, Filipino cuisine – and the mentions of adobo, halo-halo, and other local favorites will make the reader’s mouth water.
Take this excerpt from Arsenic and Adobo: “Lola Flor pointed to the suman, saying, “Sweet sticky rice cooked in coconut milk and steamed in banana leaves. The banana leaves give the rice its distinctive flavor. They’re garnished with latik. Caramelized coconut curds…In the bowl is ginataang bilo-bilo. Chewy rice balls, tapioca pearls, jackfruit, purple yam, and saba banana cooked in sweet coconut milk.” Now that sounds pretty authentic, and delicious.
In between working and eating soul-satisfying food at her Tita Rosie’s restaurant, Lila solves mysteries as an accidental sleuth.
In Arsenic and Adobo, the series debut, her ex-boyfriend, food critic Derek, falls face down into a bowl of ginataan – dead. The incident is likely to make the whole town avoid the restaurant. On top of that, Tita Rosie’s has been failing for some time, and the landlord wants them out so he can resell the store space.
To get the business – and their lives – back on track, Lila helps Detective Park look for clues to help solve the mystery – particularly after he locks her up for murder and supposed drug pushing. But it’s an unlikely person who’s the murderer, in a twist the reader won’t see coming, and Lila risks her life to bring the perpetrator to justice.
Manansala pens another heartwarming story in Homicide and Halo-Halo, the second book in the series. Lila’s hitherto moribund love life is starting to show signs of resurrecting with two bachelors giving her their attention. But she’s still down in the dumps after the events recounted in the first book, and her spirit isn’t quite up to the soft opening of her Brew-ha Café that she’s setting up with Adeena, their friend Elena, that combines Filipino, Pakistani, and Mexican culture in their offerings of food, beverages, and herbal remedies.
In this book, Detective Park has more faith in Lila’s investigative abilities, and he enlists her help to find out about a threat made against one of their town’s most important events, the Miss Teen Shady Palms beauty pageant. Lila was a winner of that same contest, having gotten her good looks from her beauty queen mother. Things get more serious when the pageant’s head judge is murdered. Now it’s up to Lila and her cousin Bernadette – with whom she’s been rivals since they were kids – to solve the case before one of them gets killed too.
I love food and books with copious references to food, so here’s another excerpt, this one from Homicide and Halo-Halo: “I sipped at the creamy, sweet liquid, rolling it over my tongue to get the full flavor of the drink. The light, floral sweetness of the pandan simple syrup played surprisingly well with the coffee, considering what a delicate flavor pandan had. It’d be a winner even without the coconut milk, but that extra touch brought a sense of decadence without heaviness.”
That’s well described; Manansala has the creative gift of writing about food in a way that engages the imagination andsets the tastebuds tingling.
Manansala’s style is better than some cozy mystery authors I’ve read who go off tangent or can’t seem to keep the threads of the stories in their hands. The events of the Tita Rosie’s Kitchen stories flow logically and take that formulaic but satisfying path from finding clues (and red herrings) to finally cracking the case that has mystery fans coming back for more.
One important aspect of successful detective stories is the ‘puzzle’ factor, and Manansala has the ability to construct well-structured whodunits and intertwine them with relatable and interesting narratives that center around family, friends, home, and community.
Another thing that makes Manansala’s stories unputdownable is the wit, heart, and humor that go into them. Her characters are well-fleshed; the heroine likeable and attractive, with a strong core of self-awareness about her own flaws while remaining confident in her knowledge, skills, and capacity to get things done.
Both books end with recipes, a delightful bonus for readers. There are how-to’s for making ube crinkles, salabat-spiced banana bread, minatamis na bao, and halo-halo ice candy, to name some of them. (Yes, Manansala is generous with sharing her recipes!)
In addition to these two that I’ve read, Manansala’s publisher will release this October her third book in this series, Blackmail and Bibingka. If you love mysteries and appreciate stories with hefty references to food and Filipino culture, then these books are the perfect summer reads.
For comments and feeback, you may reach the author on Facebook and Twitter: @DrJennyO
By Mia P. Manansala, from Berkley Prime Crime Arsenic and Adobo (2021, 316 pages, pb) Homicide and Halo-Halo (2022, 279 pages, pb)