Another idea for making descriptions of your game world’s food is to build distinctive ‘flavor palettes’ for the different cultures. Every real-world culture has a certain set of flavor combinations that they use over and over again in different dishes, making their cuisine distinct.
Familiarity with a culture’s flavor palette makes it easier to understand – and for me, to cook – their food. I personally like to cook, and thanks to my family’s love for food and cooking from all over, I’ve learned to cook not only Filipino but also Spanish, Indian, Chinese, Korean and Moroccan, and I can now do some dishes without looking at a recipe because I know how it should taste, and what makes up that flavor palette.
A flavor palette can be built up from ingredients, cooking methods, and condiments used at the moment of dining. Here are some guide questions to helping you describe a flavor palette, with examples from my own culture:
1) What does it smell like?
Aroma is usually the first thing you encounter with food. Filipino food is often fragrant with the aromas of fried garlic, or tamarind, or coconut milk. What’s the first thing your PCs should smell at a feast? The sharp freshness of lemons? The woodsmoke aroma from roasted meat? Play to your players’ noses – but be prepared to resist demands that you feed them exactly what you describe!
2) What ingredients typically carry the flavor?
Certain ingredients become keystones to a regional style of cooking. Ginger. Lemongrass. Chilies. Herbs like thyme or mint. Often these are used in combinations and proportions that are typical to one place. For example, I distinguish between the Tagalog and Ilonggo versions of a favorite chicken dish: the Tagalog version uses more ginger, while the Ilonggo version uses less ginger but adds lemongrass.
3) What cooking methods add to the flavor?
Cooking method – specially traditional ones developed before the advent of gas and electric stoves and ovens – often impart distinct flavors and other characteristics to food.
We Filipinos often roast meat or fish over charcoal, and we often wrap fish in banana leaves before grilling, which gives the fish an added fragrance. Slow simmering not only tenderizes meats, it gives them a rich mellow flavor. One of my childhood favorites is a beef marrow soup that’s boiled all morning in preparation for the lunch crowd at a restaurant my family used to frequent in my hometown. The Spanish introduced wood-fired brick ovens, and we still consider the best bread to come from those.
4) What condiments are the dishes served with?
All over Asia, people often add condiments to their food at the table before eating; it’s just part of the experience, and it’s how we’ve always done it, as far as we can remember.
Once again, different regions tend to have signature condiment combinations. Here in Davao, where I now live, almost everything is served with little calamansi limes, soy sauce, chopped shallots, and chilies in little individual dishes; you’re expected to mix your own dip to your taste. In Cambodia, it was lime and black pepper. And I can’t have dimsum without the fiery, oily North Chinese chili paste to mix with soy sauce. And my wifey just can’t have samosas without a tamarind chutney sauce to go with them!
(All right, now I have a problem – it’s just two hours after dinner, but I’m hungry.)