The List Break: Eight Foods from Books I’ve Read That I Want to Try

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One of the fun parts about reading books is the descriptions. I love how a details can come together to build a world, or enhance a character, or leave some tiny tidbit or clue that helps push the plot along. While it’s true that some writers are better at it than others, there’s no denying that a descriptive passage, when well-written and well-placed, is a pleasure to read.

This is especially true when it comes to food. I love to eat, so when food is mentioned in the books I read I tend to pay attention. As a result, there are foods from fiction that I wish I could nibble or sip on in real life.

The following list is all about the foods I’ve encountered in some of the books I’ve read, and which I want to actually try in real life. Some are actually real foods and therefore can be found and tasted, while others are completely fictional, but could potentially be replicated in real life, as some determined foodie-readers (reader-foodies?) have done. Wherever possible I’ve tried to find out the real-life counterparts of each food, as well as include a link to a recipe for those who wish to try cooking them up for themselves.

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01. honey-cakes of the Beornings – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, by J.R.R. Tolkien

“Why, it is better than the honey-cakes of the Beornings, and that is great praise, for the Beornings are the best bakers that I know of; but they are none too willing to deal out their cakes to travellers in these days.”

Much as lembas sounds interesting, I have a partiality for desserts, and when Gimli mentioned the Beornings’ honey-cakes I was intrigued by them. Unfortunately they never make an appearance anywhere else, and since it’s highly likely that the Beornings were slaughtered during the War of the Ring, it’s almost certain that Middle-Earth has been deprived of this delicacy forever.

Fortunately (or unfortunately?) I do not live in Middle-Earth, and there are many recipes for honey-cakes readily available online. However, this recipe for a Devonshire honey-cake looks appropriately rich and luscious enough to be considered a good equivalent for the Beornings’ version of this treat.

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02. ginger scald – The Lies of Locke Lamora (Gentleman Bastard #1), by Scott Lynch

“Conté, I do believe Master Fehrwight has just requested nothing less than a ginger scald.”

Conté moved adroitly to fill this request, first selecting a tall crystal wine flute, into which he poured two fingers of purest Camorri ginger oil, the color of scorched cinnamon. To this he added a sizable splash of milky pear brandy, followed by a transparent heavy liquor called ajento, which was actually a cooking wine flavored with radishes. When this cocktail was mixed, Conté wrapped a wet towel around the fingers of his left hand and reached for a covered brazier smouldering to the side of the liquor cabinet. He withdrew a slender metal rod, glowing orange-red at the tip, and plunged it into the cocktail; there was an audible hiss and a small puff of steam. Once the rod was stanched, Conté stirred the drink briskly and precisely three times, then presented it to Locke on a thin silver plate.

One of the greatest pleasures of reading Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards series is the food. Many of those dishes can actually be replicated (barring illegal ingredients like baby sharks), but one of the hardest to match, despite the detailed description of its preparation and the relative ease of finding ingredients, is the ginger scald. I have no idea how it tastes, but on those days when I’m in the throes of a bad cold and would do almost anything to relieve the stuffiness in my sinuses, I keep thinking that a ginger scald might do just the trick. Now if only I could prepare it without setting the house on fire…

While I myself might not be willing to take the risk, other people have attempted to make a ginger scald of their own, and one of the most popular recipes is this one from Food Through the Pages. It even includes suggestions on how to “scald” the drink, though it’s not necessary to do so.

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03. Dornish dish of onions, cheese and chopped eggs cooked with fiery peppers – A Storm of Swords (A Song of Ice and Fire #3), by George R. R. Martin

In the Queen’s Ballroom they broke their fast on honey cakes baked with blackberries and nuts, gammon steaks, bacon, finger fish crisped in breadcrumbs, autumn pears, and a Dornish dish of onions, cheese, and chopped eggs cooked up with fiery peppers.

What drew my attention to this dish, while reading A Storm of Swords, is how it stands in direct contrast to everything else mentioned in the same paragraph. All the other dishes are what I would expect from Westeros, which is inspired by (specifically western) medieval food conventions, but the latter dish is something else entirely: something more eastern, or southern – just not something one would expect to see on the “typical” Westerosi breakfast table. Also, although I’m not entirely fond of boiled eggs, I will happily eat them if they are smothered in a delicious sauce – or cheese, for that matter.

It took me a while to figure out the closest non-fantasy equivalent for this dish, but googling turned up Turkish menemen, and the Arabic/Israeli dish shakshuka. Both make use of (poached) eggs, onions, and spices, though neither uses cheese. However, I am sure that a lack of cheese in the recipes will not stop anyone from throwing some in if they so desire (goat cheese strikes me as the most authentic choice).

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04. candied chestnuts – Redwall (Redwall #1), by Brian Jacques

“And nuts? We must not run short of nuts.”

“You name them, we’ve got them. Even candied chestnuts and acorn crunch. We could feed the district for a year.”

Growing up in the Philippines, I’m familiar with roasted chestnuts (castañas, as they’re called here), which are sold as a street snack, especially during the Christmas season. And while they are generally tasty enough eaten that way, it was not until I read Redwall in grade school that I realised it was possible for them to be even tastier. I proved this speculation to be fact when, a few Christmases ago, I was able to taste-test some marrons glacés (essentially candied chestnuts but in French) at a Christmas bazaar and realised that yes, chestnuts do taste better when they are cooked in sugar and sucked off the tips of one’s fingers after getting stuck there.

There are plenty of recipes for candied chestnuts available online, but this recipe looks relatively foolproof, given the number of steps and ingredients.

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05. Daughter of Fishes tea – Ancillary Sword (Imperial Radch #2), by Ann Leckie

Fosyf’s tea, Daughter of Fishes, would only be available as a gift. Or—maybe—bought directly from Citizen Fosyf to be given as a gift. The Radch used money, but a staggering amount of exchanges were not money for goods, but gift for gift. Citizen Fosyf was not paid much, if anything, for her tea. Not technically. Those green fields we’d flown over, all that tea, the complicated production, was not a matter of maximizing cost efficiency—no, the point of Daughter of Fishes was prestige.

I love coffee as much as the next person (especially if it’s the local barako coffee), but I’m also very fond of tea. During various points in history, tea has played an interesting role as more than just a foodstuff: it has changed socio-economic norms, and been tied up in important political movements (such as the Boston Tea Party in 1773).

In Ancillary Sword, tea is not just a drink: it’s a political and social tool, even a weapon, if wielded correctly, and it is part of the heart of the plot in this particular novel in the series. I found it interesting, how Leckie used tea and tea-growing as a way to comment on the wider social and political problems of the Radch, allowing her to create a very tight little story that fits neatly in the space of the setting used for the novel (a space station and its associated planet) while still hinting at the larger world beyond it.

Happily, Leckie has actually written on the subject of tea in this blog entry, explaining what exactly “tea” is in the context of the Radch, as well as writing about the varieties available, and what she does and doesn’t like to drink. She suggests that, if one is looking for a real-life equivalent to Daughter of Fishes, it might be best to get a hold of some quality Ti Quan Yin, or Goddess of Mercy tea. Be warned though: as with many of the good things in life, it can get quite expensive.

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06. Forsia lily tubers – Empire Ascendant (Worldbreaker Saga #2), by Kameron Hurley

Lilia carefully removed the skin of the root and put it aside. “Don’t eat this part,” she said. “This next is most important, though.” She took the knife and gently tucked it into the centre of the tuber, and pulled the knife all the way around its stiff core. She pulled apart the two halves, revealing a sticky black center from which radiated three dark tendrils.

“This whole black center must be removed,” Lilia said. “These tendrils, too. You must not eat this part. Not even a taste. It will kill you.”

I’m always fascinated by the narrow line we humans walk when it comes to the things we eat. While there’s plenty of things that are safe to eat, there are also plenty of things that are totally unsafe to eat, unless they are prepared in a very specific way. What sort of dire, desperate straits could drive someone to eat something that could kill him or her? For that matter, how many people died until someone finally figured out how to render a poisonous foodstuff safe to consume?

In the case of the Forsia lily tubers, I can easily imagine the kind of desperation that would lead to someone eating it, because the world of the Worldbreaker Saga is not kind or gentle in any way, shape, or form. One eats whatever one can get one’s hands on, and if it nearly kills one, that’s fine – as long as one is not totally dead or rendered helpless right after.

There are two possible, real-world equivalents to the Forsia lily: taro tubers, and puffer fish. In the case of the former, it matches the description of Hurley’s fictional plant very closely, including how the tubers need to be prepared in a specific manner before they are rendered edible. In the Philippines, taro is called “gabi“, and is used in both savoury dishes and in desserts. One of the more savoury popular recipes is ginataang gabi, or taro root cooked in coconut milk, which can be eaten on its own or as a side dish.

However, taro is not as toxic as the fictional Forsia lily. In that regard, the latter is closer to the puffer fish, which, if incorrectly prepared, can kill a person in less that twenty-four hours, often with a very painful death.

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07. braised eel – The Grace of Kings (Dandelion Dynasty #1), by Ken Liu

“Yes! Yes! Oh, Sir, you’ll swear you have not had real food until you’ve tasted this braised eel. It is as smooth as a mouthful of jade. And the duck eggs? Oh my…”

I have a bit of a thing for eel. When I was a little girl my grandmother had to force me to eat it (by which I mean: glare at me disapprovingly until I’d put some of it in my mouth, chewed, and swallowed it), but after that I was in love with the stuff. I’m especially fond of Japanese grilled eel (unagi); they serve it at a local Japanese restaurant and it’s practically the only thing I order when I eat there.

But the braised eel mentioned in The Grace of Kings is something else entirely. “Smooth as a mouthful of jade”, it says: easy enough to imagine such a culinary delight, since eel is such a fatty fish, that if it is cooked in a sauce of some kind a bite of it would slip and slide across the tongue in one delicious swallow – no need for chewing, I’m sure.

Eel is popular across East Asia, not just Japan (even if the Japanese iteration is my favourite), but the closest recipe I could dig up that matches the description in the novel is this one: a modified Shanghai-style recipe that combines eel and pork in one dish. There are no duck eggs in the recipe itself, but this recipe details how they can be made. They would probably work well as a side dish.

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08. hua jiao – Throne of Jade (Temeraire #2), by Naomi Novik

The cold vanished entirely after a few days more, but though Laurence hinted repeatedly that there was no further need for assistance, the prepared dishes continued to come. Temeraire certainly made no objections, even as his sense of smell began to be restored.

“I think I am beginning to be able to tell the spices from one another,” he said, licking his claws daintily clean: he had taken to picking up the food in his forelegs to eat, rather than simply feeding from the tubs. “Those red things are called hua jiao, I like them very much.”

For a very long time, I was not interested in eating spicy food. If I ate any by accident, I was sure to be in a mildly foul mood for some time (how long my mood stayed foul depended upon how spicy the food was). Nowadays, though, I’ve taken the exact opposite approach: I’m learning to appreciate the spicy stuff, even though I’m still very much on my training wheels when it comes to heat tolerance.

When I first read Throne of Jade, I didn’t exactly think about looking up what a “hua jiao” was, but when a close friend and I did a reread of the series last year in preparation for the release of the last book, I came across the above passage again, and decided to look it up – after all, any sort of food that a dragon would find tasty must be interesting, right? As it turns out, “hua jiao” is Sichuan pepper: a spice much used in Szechuan (Sichuan) cooking, and (in)famous for the numbing sensation it leaves in the mouth when consumed.

There are many ways one can use Sichuan pepper in cooking, but probably the most popular is in mala sauce: a tongue-scorching, mouth-numbing, utterly delicious combination of various spices, including Sichuan pepper, simmered in oil and then stored in a jar. It is used both for cooking and as a condiment, and is an ingredient in a number of dishes, including Szechuan hot pot and something called “drooling chicken”. Here is a recipe for the latter, which includes a recipe for the sauce, plus another recipe for good measure, which attempts to mimic the drooling chicken of a particular restaurant. Mala sauce is also, apparently, available in shops, though I’m sure the quality and taste profiles vary across different brands.

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5 thoughts on “The List Break: Eight Foods from Books I’ve Read That I Want to Try

  1. The moment I read the sentence about the Dornish dish with onions… I instantly thought of Shakshouka!! It’s awesome and actually some variations DO have cheese! I cook mine with lots of Feta and it tastes amazing. I’ll give you the recipe if you’d like. 🙂

  2. Spamming you right here!

    1 can of diced/chopped tomatoes
    1 – 2 bell peppers. I prefer the green, orange or yellow ones to add more colour.
    1 large onion
    4 cloves garlic (or more depending on how much you like garlic. Sometimes i go for the whole thing!)
    Salt, pepper, cumin, cayenne pepper, paprika. Usually season to taste, but 1 tbsp or cumin and paprika should be enough. If you don’t have cayenne pepper, use chili powder.

    Chop everything and fry the onions first in a little bit of olive oil, then the garlic. When the onions are soft add the bell peppers. When those are soft, add the tomatoes and seasoning. Let it simmer on the stove. Use the back of the spoon to create ‘wells’ in the tomatoes and crack the eggs in there. Crack as many eggs as your pan can fit, I usually get 5 in there. Let it simmer until the eggs look cooked! You do poach the eggs, but you poach it in the tomatoes itself. 🙂 You can also crumble some feta cheese in before you put the eggs.

      1. Some add tomato paste! Usually when you get the diced tomatoes in a can a lot of liquid is there. If you need more, just add some tomato paste or sauce depending on your preference. I like mine chunky 🙂

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