Whether it’s lembas bread and stewed rabbit or a nice fresh pan-galactic gargle blaster, the things that characters eat and drink can be a useful way of establishing the feel of an unfamiliar world. But how your characters eat and how their food is prepared and served can contribute just as much to your worldbuilding as what they eat. Here are a few things to think about when creating food systems for fantasy worlds.
Wet carbs or dry carbs?
Traditional cuisines in most of the world are based on carbohydrates, but those carbs can come in many different forms. If they’re dry—flatbread, raised breads, tortillas, biscuits, etc.—then people are likely to eat them by hand and may well use them to pick up and hold other dishes like stews and sauces. If they’re wet—porridge, cooked rice, pasta, etc.—people are more likely to use implements like spoons and chopsticks to hold them.
Eating by hand or eating with implements?
While this can be to some extent determined by the nature of the food, many foods can be eaten either by hand or with implements. Implement-eating cultures tend to develop specialized implements for particular foods or kinds of eating; whether or not people have access to or know how to use the correct implements for the right food can be a marker of social status. On the other hand, hand-eating cultures can have just as complicated rules about how to eat. Forget the renfaire stereotypes about grabbing a turkey leg and tearing into it; societies that eat by hand tend to have strict rules governing when and how often you wash your hands, which hand you use to eat with, even which fingers and which individual finger joints should be used for which foods.
Large pieces or small pieces?
Some cuisines, such as most traditional European cookery, tend to cook meats and vegetables in large pieces which individual diners cut up for themselves. Others, such as traditional cuisines across much of south and east Asia, tend to cut meats and vegetable into smaller pieces in the kitchen which are served up to be consumed as they are.
Communal dishes or individual servings?
Sometimes food is served in communal dishes from which everyone takes what they like; other times, everyone gets their own individual serving. Both ways of serving are wrapped up with social etiquette. With communal dishes, there are usually rules about how people serve themselves, in what order, and how much at a time. With individual dishes, there may be rules about whether everyone gets the same things or the same amount.
In any culture, you are also likely to find variations on these possibilities. People of different social classes or ethnic backgrounds within the same society may well follow different eating customs. The same people may also eat differently under different circumstances: a quiet family dinner at home probably has different social rules than a public banquet for a festival day. Drawing out these complexities is also a part of worldbuilding.
Food is important. People often get emotionally invested not just in what they eat but in how they eat it. Many of the customs and norms that societies develop for how food is eaten and served have their roots in protecting hygiene and managing social hierarchies, two very important issues for personal well-being. Even today, when modern food safety practices and the weakening of traditional social hierarchies has made these issues less urgent, people can still have deep emotional reactions to perceived transgressions as trivial as folding a slice of pizza or eating a hamburger with fork and knife.
Imagine how important customs of cooking, serving, and eating food could be in a world in which your character’s standing in society may depend on knowing which finger to use to dip into the shared sauce bowl.
Image: Preparing butter, image from Shiwunbencao (ink on paper, Ming period)
History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writershere.
“[…] we’ve put together a short recipe list — consisting of hors-d’oeuvre, entrées, and entremets based on traditional puffin and poultry dishes — for your perusal.
“Yes, you read that right. Despite being protected by several national and international conservation organizations, puffins are considered a rare delicacy in Nordic countries. And seeing as how The Last Jedi‘s porgs are based on the puffins writer/director Rian Johnson saw while filming at Skellig, it makes sense their preparation would be similar.”
While Iceland is unquestionably one of the Nordic countries, it’s ludicrous to claim that the existence of a practice in one country (or even two) equals its existence in all five.
Now, had Husband talked for instance of reindeer, he would be more correct, but still not entirely so. The Sami herd reindeer in the north of Finland, Sweden, and Norway, so we three nations tend to eat reindeer meat. In fact, sauteed reindeer or poronkäristys was one of the regular dishes at my elementary school cafeteria in Northern Finland, so I personally couldn’t call it a delicacy even though I’ve eaten it less often since. In Denmark and in Iceland it’s an import, and apparently they hardly eat reindeer at all (or so the all-knowing Internet tells me).
But puffin? I’ve never even heard of eating puffin before, although it sounds like the practice does have long roots in Iceland and Norway (judging e.g. by the existence of lundehunder or puffin dogs in the latter) and some other areas like the Faroes. And now that I know Atlantic puffins are considered vulnerable, I wouldn’t eat them even if I happened to be in a country where hunting them wasn’t banned. Not even if you paid me.
Worldcon is in Helsinki this year. As a Finnish-American couple, we are very excited about this! In the coming months, we’d like to offer some practical advice about visiting Finland to our fellow fans who are considering going to the event but haven’t had experience with Finland and Finns before.
Erik here. Finnish food isn’t as familiar to most Americans as French or Italian food. Before meeting Eppu and visiting Finland, I couldn’t even have made a guess at what Finnish food is like. For those of you new to Finland, here’s a little taste of what you have to look forward to in Helsinki.
About Finnish food
Traditional Finnish food will feel familiar if you grew up in New England or the midwest: fish, beef and pork, many kinds of dairy products, potatoes, seasonal vegetables and berries, and grains (although grains like rye and barley are more common than in the US). Of course, what most Finns eat nowadays is not that different from what most westerners eat, but you’ll still see the influence of traditional foods in many places. There’s still lots of fresh fish and potatoes on Finnish tables and the dairy sections of Finnish grocery stores have an amazing array of products, some of which don’t even have names in English.
For many Finns, breakfast is an open-faced sandwich made of a slice of rye bread or a Karelian pie (see below) topped with cheese, cold cuts, tomato, and cucumbers. If your hotel offers breakfast, expect to see a table of sandwich makings. You’ll also probably find eggs in various forms, sausages and/or bacon, oatmeal porridge, yogurt, and berries. You’ll also find coffee. Finns take their coffee very seriously: Finland has one of the highest per-capita rates of coffee consumption in the world.
Lunch and dinner are much the same as in the U.S. It’s also common for Finns to take coffee breaks in the mid-morning and mid-afternoon. These are seen as treasured moments for relaxation and reflection. Working during a coffee break is a breach of social etiquette and it is rude to interrupt a Finn on their coffee break unless invited to join in. It is less common for Finnish cafés to serve coffee in to-go cups; you are expected to stay there and drink your coffee in peace, not carry it with you as you rush off to your next meeting.
What is true of coffee is true of food in general: Finns see eating as an activity in itself, not something you do while working on something else or on your way somewhere. Even fast food is meant to be eaten sitting down, not on the go. The two most common kinds of fast food in Finland are pizza and kebab. Finnish pizza has a paper-thin crust and is served in whole, uncut pies, not as slices. Eat it with a fork and knife, not folded up in your hand. (But definitely have some—Finnish pizza is superb.) Kebab, which may not be so familiar to Americans (though it is similar to shawarma), is a Turkish import: thin strips of grilled spiced meat often served in a pita bread or on top of rice, with lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, pickled hot peppers, and sauces. It’s also very well worth sampling, but it tends to make a bit of a mess. Several international fast food chains also have a presence in Finland, in case you feel the need for something familiar.
In general, Finnish tastes tend more sour and less sweet than Americans’. Sour berries like cranberries, lingonberries, currants, and gooseberries are widely grown and often eaten plain or only lightly sweetened. Finnish rye bread (ruisleipä) is a tangy sourdough bread without the molasses and caraway seeds that sweeten American rye breads. Finnish yogurts, juices, desserts, and other foods also tend to be less sweet than typical American versions of the same.
Many Finns are lactose-intolerant, have gluten sensitivities, and/or eat vegetarian or vegan. Food allergies are also very common. Most stores and restaurants offer a variety of alternatives suitable for people with these concerns. Look for “VL” / “vähälaktoosinen” for low lactose or “laktoositon” for lactose-free, “GL” or “gluteeniton” for gluten-free.
Public water fountains are rare in Finland. If you’re going to be out and about for a day, it’s a good idea to carry a water bottle with you.
How would you like to make beer and get college credit for it? Students at Stanford got to do just that. Their final project for Professor Li Liu’s course Archaeology of Food: Production, Consumption and Ritual involved practical experiments with ancient brewing techniques and materials. The oldest “recipe” they tried is 5,000 years old:
“Liu, together with doctoral candidate Jiajing Wang and a group of other experts, discovered the 5,000-year-old beer recipe by studying the residue on the inner walls of pottery vessels found in an excavated site in northeast China. The research, which was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, provided the earliest evidence of beer production in China so far.”
The materials for the ancient Chinese beer contained millet, barley, Job’s tears (Chinese pearl barley), and traces of yam and lily root parts. The students tried other combinations as well. Watch a short video explaining the experiments:
Stanford students recreate 5,000-year-old Chinese beer recipe by Stanford
Professor Liu’s research also shows it’s possible that barley (a very popular beer grain even today) may have been introduced to China from western Asia hundreds of years before previously thought and specifically for brewing instead of a food crop.
Fascinating! It shows that as long as we have records—or material remnants, not just written word—there have been people interested in the minutiae of food and food production. I for one am grateful to be able to enjoy the fruits of such a long history of delicious experiments.
This post has been edited.
Geeks eat, too! Second Breakfast is an occasional feature in which we talk about food with geeky connections and maybe make some of our own. Yum!
There’s few ways of cooking more traditional than boiling. You can put vegetables and meat all in one big pot and boil until cooked through. Everything comes out piping hot and full of flavor. It’s simple and satisfying.
Our dinner this month is based on an old staple of New England cookery, the boiled dinner of corned beef or ham and root vegetables. I’ve substituted chicken for the meat and used what seemed like suitably Hobbitish vegetables: onions, potatoes, carrots, and cabbage.
We can be certain that Hobbits have chickens, since there’s no end of eggs in Bilbo’s kitchen. (H1) Pippin also complains about Gandalf guarding the palantir “like a hen on an egg.” (3.11) Potatoes, carrots, and onions are all on Sam’s wish list for a good stew (4.4) and the Gaffer scolds his son for dreaming of elves and dragons instead of cabbages and potatoes. (1.1) These ingredients all seem pretty solidly attested.
“Seed-cake” can mean any of a variety of cakes flavored with seeds, but I picked an old poppy seed-cake recipe that sounded like something Bilbo would enjoy. (H1) Poppies have long been cultivated in western Europe and elsewhere for their seeds and oil; they seem like they would be at home in the Shire.
“Altogether 1420 in the Shire was a marvellous year. […] In the Southfarthing the vines were laden, and the yield of ‘leaf’ was astonishing; and everywhere there was so much corn that at Harvest every barn was stuffed. The Northfarthing barley was so fine that the beer of 1420 malt was long remembered and became a byword. Indeed a generation later one might hear an old gaffer at an inn, after a good pint of well-earned ale, put down his mug with a sigh: ‘Ah! That was a proper fourteen-twenty, that was!’”
We come back, at last, to the Shire, to end our year of dining in Middle Earth with a humble Hobbit dinner such as Frodo and his friends might have enjoyed after returning home from their adventures. A boiled chicken dinner makes a warm, homey meal for cold winter nights, and of course there’s beer to go with it. For dessert we have seed-cakes, an old favorite of Bilbo’s.
The table setting is sunny and cheerful, decorated with the Hobbits’ favorite colors. An unbleached linen table runner with green and yellow stripes sits over a dark green tablecloth. Green also comes on the napkins and plant pot with an ivy motif. The dinner is served on one large, hefty platter. A cloth-lined bread basket holds the small dessert seed-cakes. Fancy water glasses add another pop of greenish hues to the table.
No, that’s not not the name of my new band. It’s the answer to a mystery in the bones of ancient Nubians.
You see, strains of bacteria that live in the soil of Nubia—the middle region of the Nile, south of Egypt—naturally produce tetracycline, an antibiotic that the bacteria use to kill off competing bacteria. During the fourth and fifth centuries CE, the people of Nubia stored their grain underground and some of it got contaminated. The result was that the things they then made with that grain, like bread and beer, contained tetracycline. Eating and drinking these products gave the Nubians a dose of antibiotics, which probably helped them resist diseases and infections.
The traces of these antibiotics turned up in the bones of Nubian mummies. We don’t know to what extent the ancient Nubians were aware of the effect their beer was having on them. No one in the ancient world had the medical knowledge to understand antibiotics, but even without understanding causes, people can be very observant of effects. They may well have known that their beer helped keep them healthy, even if they didn’t know why.
Beer. It’s good for you.
Image: Ancient Egyptian shabti statuette of a woman making beer, photograph by yov dothan via Wikimedia (Currently Israel Museum, Jerusalem; c. 2000 BCE; painted wood)
Geeks eat, too! Second Breakfast is an occasional feature in which we talk about food with geeky connections and maybe make some of our own. Yum!
Since we really only see Gondor in a time of war and Tolkien gives us very little detail about what daily life was like after the defeat of Sauron, it takes some imagination to come up with a proper meal for such an occasion. In creating this month’s menu, I had a specific idea in mind: a feast that would represent all the people of Gondor. Aragorn’s coronation meant a new beginning for a kingdom that had been in a long decline. It touched all of Gondor’s people and it made sense that they would all contribute something to the table.
From the fishing folk of Ethir Anduin, we get a seafood soup. This recipe uses a variety of different seafoods combined with carrots and onions. It is, at heart, food for a hardworking family making a living from the sea and small coastal gardens, but the addition of cream and saffron makes it richer, sweeter, and more luxuriant. (5.1)
From the small farmers and herders of the hill country, we have a haunch of roast pork. To reflect the southern climes of Gondor, the pork is stuffed with herbs, olives and dates. This, too, is simple food, but presented in royal style.
From the fields and gardens of Pelennor, we get sauteed spinach, flavored with garlic and ginger. This recipe is inspired by a medieval dish from the middle east which seems appropriate for the Mediterranean-ish setting of Gondor.
Finally, from the sophisticated city-dwellers of Minas Tirith itself, we end with an artful set of almond pastries representing the white tree and seven stars of Gondor.
“Frodo gave way; and Gandalf, as if he were their esquire, knelt and girt the sword-belts about them, and then rising he circlets of silver upon their heads. And when they were arrayed they went to the great feast; and they sat at the King’s table with Gandalf, and King Eomer of Rohan […]”
This month, we try to imagine a celebratory feast in Minas Tirith for the coronation of Aragorn. The people of Gondor had lived through war and privation, but they would surely have laid on the best they could for their new king and the return of peace. Our feast includes saffron seafood soup, roasted pork with olives and dates, sauteed spinach, and almond pastries for dessert.
Our table setting is based on a contrast of primarily white dishware and the dark tabletop. Most of the color comes from the food. The shapes of the dishware are simple, with no patterns or surface decorations. Silver cutlery, silvery candlesticks, and a white, shimmery table runner introduce a touch of luxury. A pewter cup holds mint sprigs for additional color and flavoring.