One of the ways I like to bring my game world alive is to describe in detail what’s being served to my players’ characters, specially when they visit a strange new location. It helps bring home to the players that they’re somewhere exotic.
As a foodie who loves to cook, I can easily come up with ideas for various foods based on location and give multisensory descriptions of them. On some occasions I’ve even been threatened with grievous bodily harm for making my players so hungry with my descriptions! :-D But could a GM who doesn’t cook do the same? Definitely! Here’s how:
1) Eat Different! The most pleasurable way to research on food is to eat it! Try eating different cuisines, specially those you’ve never tried before. Try to identify the key ingredients and what makes each cuisine different. Try to remember the tastes and smells so you can describe them later.
2) Leaf through cookbooks and food mags. Reading the recipes in cookbooks and food magazines will give you an idea of what ingredients are out there and how they can be used, and the pictures will help you build visual descriptions of food.
3) Location, location, location! Where in your gameworld are the PC’s? What’s the climate there like? What’s the terrain and vegetation like? What natural food-bearing resources are nearby?
This will be specially important in a world with pre-modern technology, as without fast, cheap transport and refrigeration people will have to eat mostly what’s locally available.
You’ll want to relate the geography of the place with what livestock can be raised, what crops can be grown, and what wild foods, including fish and game, can be found in the area.
4) Go by the seasons. Again, with no refrigeration many foods can only be enjoyed at certain seasons. Some foods become available only at harvest time, while some meats and fish will only be available when those animals pass near a settlement during their migrations.
For example, fresh salmon may be available only during the spring run, and the rest of the year you’ll have to be content with smoked, salted or dried salmon instead.
Similarly the traditional Christmas ham is a product of Christmas happening in midwinter in the Northern hemisphere; if you wanted a big festive hunk of meat then, it’d have to be salted or smoked from the autumn slaughtering season.
5) What you eat is what they ate. Many animals will acquire a distinct flavor at various times of year, or based on where they were raised, because of their diet.
For example, Parma in Italy prides itself on ham made from pigs that have been fattened on chestnuts. Here where I live, ham from the city of Cagayan de Oro is famous because swine from there are fattened on pineapples.
In my world of Syrene, one island’s specialty is a dish of nine different kinds of wild dove, each kind distinctly flavored because it specializes in eating a particular wild fruit.
Sometimes diet will also dictate what you can’t have, for example during certain times of year or under certain conditions, some fish become toxic or foul-tasting. There were months when my mother wouldn’t buy fish from a certain lake because they’d have a terrible muddy flavor.
6) Think luxurious and decadent. What might the aristocracy of your game world eat? Often the foods eaten by the rich and powerful are different not just from the ingredients that go into them but also the number of ingredients and how elaborately they’re prepared.
Ever heard of turducken? It’s a turkey stuffed with a duck, which in turn has been stuffed with a chicken. There’s an Arabian Nights story that describes a roast camel with a whole sheep inside, within which is a fowl, a peacock I think, in which was a hen, in which was a dove, in which was a songbird …
The rich also show off their wealth by serving foods imported from afar. Signature products from various regions will often be featured at a patrician’s table. Maybe the sausage of a certain town is famous, or the cheese from another, or the apples from a certain valley. Animals or fish may even be imported live from where they were caught, at great trouble to the merchant, because the rich are sure buyers. In a fantasy world, of course, the rich may develop a taste for certain monsters that must be brought back alive so they’re served as fresh as possible.
Another luxury only the rich can afford is food made by painstaking, low-yield methods. One real-world example that had me spinning the first time I tried it is ice wine; made from grapes that were allowed to shrivel on the vine in frost, ice wine is very concentrated and very smooth, very different from ordinary wine – and because it’s made with drying grapes, it takes a lot more grapes to make every cup of ice wine. The more a food has to be aged, or the more processes it has to go through, the more expensive it rapidly gets.
7) Think Bizarre! One of my favorite TV shows is Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern. I love the guy’s storytelling style, and I admire his chutzpah in trying out stuff that’d make most of the people I know blanch. The funny thing is, as an Asian who grew up in a small town (well, it used to be a small town), I find a lot of the items featured in the show to be familiar and in fact quite yummy, similar to treats I’d savored in my childhood.
Before the advent of freezer trucks and grocery chains, people ate a lot more different things, and every part of a butchered food animal would be consumed save for the skin and bones (which weren’t always safe either!). Notice how hearts, livers, kidneys and brains keep popping up in traditional ‘peasant’ recipes the world over? Waste not, want not was the motto of the day, resulting in great foods like Britain’s steak and kidney pie, fish head curry, Spanish callos, and dinuguan (blood stew). In a medieval or ancient-style setting, organ meats would be much more common; in fact because these meats spoil first and so are only available near a recent butchering, they would probably be regarded as delicacies.
Another pattern we find in the less-Westernized parts of Asia and Africa is the eating of plants and animals considered unusual as food. From frogs, crickets, grubs, monitor lizards, ants, snakes, and even poisonous puffer fish almost nothing is safe from the human appetite. What unusual animals might be served in your game world?
The poisonous puffer (fugu) so highly regarded in Japan also gives me another idea. Quite a few items that we eat are actually poisonous unless prepared right. The akee fruit of Jamaica and West Africa is one, as is the cassava. What poisonous animals, fruits and other products are enjoyed in your game world? What must be done to remove the poison? What benefits are thought to be derived from eating the potentially poisonous item? What happens if the detoxification goes wrong, and what can the player characters do about it?
Or maybe you don’t want to go the poison route, but just want to torment your characters with some revolting ideas. What foods might make even a drunken dwarf go “Ick!” in your game world? Let’s take the real-world example of the durian, which really is one of the worst things I’ve ever smelled, my own sneakers included. Revolting foods are often considered thus because of the smell, and often because of their treatment. Fermented and aged foods abound in cultures across the world, from European blue cheese to Asian miso to Norse lutefisk. The meat of sharks and rays often have a pissy odor because of the urea they contain.
To help give you more ideas, check out the Omnivore’s 100, a list of 100 interesting foods from around the world including some bizarrities.
8) What’s Taboo? Defining food taboos is a good way of helping to define cultures and beliefs across your game world. Food taboos are often religious in nature; the food in question is forbidden because it is sacred to a god, detested by a god, or considered spiritually polluting.
Spiritual pollution is often considered contagious, so an animal that eats something polluting – for example, corpses – is itself usually considered polluting to eat. Scavengers are often considered taboo to eat for this reason.
Many bottom-feeding fish, such as catfish, will fall under this classification. So too, in ancient times, did hogs, which are omnivores and will eat carrion when they can. I also remember talking to a fishmonger once, sometime after the sinking of a ferry; he noted that nobody wanted to buy shark meat anymore because of the chance the shark might’ve been feeding at the wreck site!
Sometimes the taboo comes from the mythical associations of the animal. For example, in his history Barangay William Henry Scott notes that ancient Visayan warriors were forbidden from eating the timid deer before a battle, lest their courage fail them. The root of the belief is that you take on the properties of what you eat. Thus you should avoid any food coming from animals or plants with qualities you want to avoid in yourself.
9) But It’s GOOD for You! Some foods are served more for the supposed benefits they bring than for their flavor or nutritional qualities. I would have to point to Chinese cuisine as one of the strongest examples of this approach to eating.
The Chinese have a great philosophy toward food and health: it’s better to prevent than to have to cure, and the best way to prevent a lot of problems is to eat right. Chinese medical philosophy is oriented toward instilling the body with vigor and restoring its proper balance of the elements, so a lot of Chinese foods are made with this idea in mind.
Another very strong concern in Chinese therapeutic cuisine is virility and fertility. A lot of foods are considered aphrodisiac in Chinese cuisine, and the ingredients for these always bring top dollar because of it. Again, many of these beliefs are associative: Soup Number Five, made with bull’s genitals, stimulates male potency because, hey, it’s made from bull’s genitals! If it’s phallic-shaped, if it comes from an animal of supposedly great sexual vigor or power, you can bet it’s considered an aphrodisiac somewhere.
While I don’t agree with many of these suppositions on environmentalist grounds, I have to say the idea can be easily adapted to your game world. A rich host, wishing to show his regard for the player characters, might regale them with a very strange feast designed to restore their health or give them powers. Failure to eat the stuff would seriously insult the host.
Again going back to the idea that you become what you eat at some level, a quick glance at your Monstrous Compendium or whatever bestiary you’re using in your game will quickly reveal some monsters with qualities someone will pay much to internalize, so to speak. Who wouldn’t want to partake of the magical power of a dragon?
This could even get rather sinister, as the desire for various magical qualities spurs a demand in forbidden meats. What if orcs wanted to eat elf meat to gain elf-like longevity? What if an evil wizard thought he could gain god-like powers by eating the flesh of various magical creatures such as unicorns and the like? What if an evil wizard, entertaining the PCs as guests, serves them foods designed to weaken their powers? What if the PCs are guesting with an alien race who think nothing of consuming something manlike, for example a giant, because they think doing so gains them power?
10) Get your hands dirty. Why not try cooking, yourself? Research an authentic period or regional recipe that’s related to the game you’ll be running, get contributions from the players for ingredients, and bash it together in your kitchen for them. It’ll be different from the usual gamer diet of pizza, and a great way to immerse yourselves in the game. Me, I think I’ll make a biryani for the next session of the Arabian Nights-inspired Sea Rovers of Syrene.