Don’t Write Alone | Interviews

Mia Manansala Believes Food Always Tells a Personal Story

Anthony Ocampo interviews Mia Manansala about her “Tita Rosie’s Kitchen Mystery Series,” writing immigrant narratives beyond trauma, and—of course—food.

Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder.

Arsenic and AdoboHomicide and Halo-HaloBlackmail and Bibingka

Anthony Ocampo: When reading and , I noticed something. When talking about Filipino food, you provided succinct descriptions. For example, sinigang is “a delicious, tangy soup that manages to be both comforting and refreshing” and lumpiang shanghai is “meat-filled fried spring rolls.” Other times though, you left Filipino vernaculars—Ninang (godmother), tsismis (gossip), or phrases like “Diyos ko!” (My God!)—undefined. I’m wondering how you navigated the choice to explain or not explain these terms.

my You should understand it.Jane Eyrelove Jane Eyre

AO: I mean, even as a person who grew up eating Filipino food, there were some foods I’d never heard of. There are, after all, over 7,000 islands in the Philippines. How can any one person know them all? Like I didn’t know kwek-kwek were deep-fried quail eggs! I did notice in both your books though, there were some creative experiments with Filipino food—ube crinkles, a pandan-infused latte. Where’d those come from?

a lotWhat would be a great combination? That sounds amazingHow can I put my own spin on it? What can I fiddle with to make it more like my own taste?

AO: It’s clear you have a lifelong love for Filipino food. But in media outlets, we always hear stories about Asian children of immigrants and their “lunch box moment,” the childhood memory of bringing a traditional ethnic dish to school and getting made fun of by their white friends. Did you ever experience the lunch box moment that so many consider to be a quintessentially Asian American experience?



AO: Other Asians have their “lunch box moment,” but I feel like Filipinos who grow up around Latinos all have their “puto moment.” Speaking of moments, you hear a lot of media outlets talk about Filipino food having its “moment” or becoming the “next big thing.” There’s ube ice cream at Trader Joe’s and chicken adobo at Whole Foods. What do you think about the mainstreaming of Filipino food, or this idea that Filipino food has “arrived”? Do you find it validating or annoying?

AO: Yeah, it been here. It’s nice to see all these Filipino chefs and food writers like Ligaya Mishan of the and the James Beard-nominated author and restaurateur Nicole Ponseca making a name for themselves. You wrote a culinary cozy, but I’m wondering how much you keep up with the broader Filipino food movement?

I Am a Filipino: And This is How I Cook, Amboy Eggslut

I like that people are knowing more about [Filipino food], but maybe it’s the language that people use around it that I don’t like—presenting it like “it’s arrived.” I’m like, it’s been here.

AO: What draws you to that?

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AO: Did you have a “crying in Seafood City” moment?


AO: I love how, in your books, you write about how there’s more to these Filipino food sites than meets the eye. Like how Tita Rosie’s kitchen—the family restaurant in Shady Pines where Lila works—is more than just a restaurant. It’s a community center. It’s where Tita Rosie and other characters get to educate people about Filipino culture.

AO: Another thing I love is that your books center strong female characters. These past two years, so much about Asian women was about the awfulness—the violent attacks, Filipino nurses disproportionately dying from COVID-19. Yeah, your books have dead bodies, but it was comforting for me to exist in this space where the narrative about Filipina women—like Lila, her ninangs, her lola, her tita—wasn’t just about tragedy. They got to be all sorts of things. They got to be fully fleshed out human beings.

AO: What has been the reaction from readers to your books?

AO: Okay, now you’re gonna make me cry. Whew.