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I'm going through my novel in the editing stages, and I'm realizing how flat the culture of my food is. How can I develop a good food culture that is believable without drawing too much on human aspects of food culture? The main part I'm struggling with is describing the food.

(FYI, my creatures are elf-like and war-oriented, the kind of food I'm thinking about "creating" is more strange-ly colored and with weird texture.)

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    $\begingroup$ Hello Ann. Welcome to Worldbuilding. As a first-time users you're probably not aware that open-ended questions that are looking for an infinite list of things where every answer is equally valid (see our help center) are off-topic. If you're looking for help with writing skills, we recommend Writing. If you want to develop the food for your world, we need to know more about your world so we can help you search for an on-topic finite list of things. $\endgroup$ – JBH Sep 8 at 4:18
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    $\begingroup$ Hi Ann, can we get some more details please? Just to narrow down the problem space a bit. Is the entire culture oriented to war? Are your elves nature-loving leaf eaters or are they out on the almost-carnivore end of the omnivore spectrum? Are there any odd nutritional requirements? How high tech are these people, are they going to be carrying processed and preserved foods or do they have to source fresh foods? $\endgroup$ – Corey Sep 8 at 9:14
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    $\begingroup$ Surely the important thing is not the food itself, but how the characters feel about food? After all, this is a major part of the content of earth recipe books. Go Proustian and talk about the memories it triggers. $\endgroup$ – pjc50 Sep 8 at 9:27
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    $\begingroup$ there is only so much you can do with with slabs of meat and vegetables, food made from the same stuff will be similar no matter what. The only thing you can really change is how the dominate grain is prepared. $\endgroup$ – John Sep 8 at 10:03
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    $\begingroup$ @John Define similar. There are dozens and dozens of ways to prepare meat and vegetables. The variety of dishes that you can cook out of meat and vegetables is no less or maybe greater than grain-based dishes. May I suggest to do some research? You might be very surprised by what you discover. $\endgroup$ – Otkin Sep 8 at 18:57

11 Answers 11

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If you want to make it believable you can build your diets based on these:

  1. available ingredients;
  2. available cooking technologies;
  3. culture

Ingredients

Your people live somewhere and they get foodstuffs somehow. What is the climate of their area? What plants grow in this climate? What animals live there? You can check types of existing biomes and then look them up to see what lives there. Then see what kind of plants and animals locals consume for food. If your flora and fauna are not terrestrial researching biomes will give you some ideas about features typical for plants and animals living in specific climates.

The next series of questions for this part deals with lifestyle. Are your people hunters, gatherers, farmers, fishers? Do they migrate with seasons? Do they trade with other peoples?

Cooking techniques and technologies

Food can be boiled, fried, baked, fermented, pickled, frozen, served fresh, etc. Check Wikipedia for specific techniques and their descriptions. Choice of cooking techniques depends on technology (do your people have ovens and frying pans?), ingredients, and lifestyle. For example, pickling would be widespread in societies that have short growing seasons, no greenhouses, and easy access to salt. Deep frying would be rare if oils and fats are not easy to get. You can check the historical period and culture to see what combination of techniques was most prevalent in specific circumstances.

Culture

Culture may dictate what can and cannot be eaten. For example, it may place a taboo on eating meat or drinking alcohol despite both being widely available. You should consider, though, that most taboos are practical and they will not cause starvation. It is impossible to forbid meat in climates where people rely on meat to provide essential nutrients.

Culture also affects preparation and presentation. For example, both Chinese and Japanese cuisines cut food into pieces that are easy to eat with chopsticks. However, Chinese cuisine manipulates ingredients and their taste to a greater degree than Japanese cuisine, because their respective cultures appreciate the natural taste of an ingredient in different ways.

Once you are done with figuring out what your people can possibly cook and how they do it, you can try to make it more 'interesting'. Add some insects for texture and crunch. Use some water plants (kombu, for example) for decoration. Make your people admire the weightlessness of souffle or a pate. Create a culture that serves a lot of side dishes so you can showcase your effort. Or go the other way and make it very simple and practical.

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    $\begingroup$ Great answer (+1), except probably Make your people admire the weightlessness of (...) a pate. If we have the same pâté in mind (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P%C3%A2t%C3%A9), it is a lot of things but not weightless :) $\endgroup$ – WoJ Sep 9 at 14:26
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    $\begingroup$ No, we are used to different cuisines. My pate is whipped. $\endgroup$ – Otkin Sep 9 at 18:41
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    $\begingroup$ Ah, this is something I have not seen yet. Is this something like that: delicious.com.au/recipes/farm-style-pickles-whipped-pate/… ? Looks like hummus, but made of meat. $\endgroup$ – WoJ Sep 9 at 18:47
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, somewhat similar. I use butter to make it nicer and smoother. It is similar to buttercream (EU versions, not US) in texture, but since it has lower fat content it does not feel as heavy. When done well it really feels weightless and literally melts in your mouth. $\endgroup$ – Otkin Sep 9 at 18:54
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Food in war-oriented organizations tends to be nutritious, reheatable but can be eaten hot or cold, is neither too bland, too spicy, nor too pungent, is portable, and can be transported and eaten one-handed in the dark or rain. It does not spoil rapidly. Preparation can produce some telltale smoke or steam that might be observed by an enemy...but not too much. It usually won't cause diarrhea or gastric distress, but is also not too fibrous. It's not epicurean, but it's not terrible either.

Food in a whole war-oriented culture might share some of those characteristics.

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    $\begingroup$ This is a worldbuilding answer, focusing on helping the OP build their world. +1. $\endgroup$ – JBH Sep 8 at 4:23
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    $\begingroup$ Keep in mind that cooking and spicing food reduces the risk of disease. Absent canning technology, spices (especially salt) and cooking are pretty important. $\endgroup$ – Brian Sep 8 at 16:26
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    $\begingroup$ What you describe are field rations. They have one major problem — they do not provide balanced nutrition. I am not aware of any culture that has a cuisine built mainly on this kind of food. It is impractical and unhealthy. Moreover, all armies in history supplemented rations with hunting/foraging/pillaging (history.com/news/…). $\endgroup$ – Otkin Sep 8 at 19:17
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    $\begingroup$ You will need to have individuals and infrastructure (probably outside war zones) in place to actually make or harvest this, and you need individuals and infrastructure in place to support those individuals and infrastructure. Those individuals will probably not be that concerned with how well-suited to war zones what they are eating, so you'd most likely have some variation, similar to the variation between what humans eat inside and outside war zones. If you want to be at war everywhere all the time, you'll likely need to primarily favour what's easy to gather ingredients for and make. $\endgroup$ – NotThatGuy Sep 9 at 11:38
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    $\begingroup$ Variation and nutritional value are rather recent in our human world. Most of history most of the world and most people every day food did not change much from day to day, it did change with the seasons in most of the world, at least for those with access to fresh vegetables and meat. For a long time many Irish lived on hardly anything more than potatoes, while the average city worker in the English cities ate grain based meals without vegetables. $\endgroup$ – Willeke Sep 10 at 17:52
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It doesn't need to be that believable if it's alien/foreign, just make sure it fits with the rest of the culture you're describing, and describe it as it's experienced by the protagonist. Savory intestinal wall basted in exquisite fairy spoor and roasted over fresh-cut toenails could be a thing, but you wouldn't SAY that unless you're trying to gross out the reader (and you may want to).

Be aware that your audience will relate most to human terms and the more alien you make it, the more they will rely on their connection with the protagonist for a vicarious perception. FOCUS on experiences over accurate depictions of the food itself: "Altorqas speared a cube of baked venrappa and bit into it gingerly to avoid burning her tongue, relishing the crunch of its husk and the viscous meat within."

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    $\begingroup$ Man, now I want to eat venrappa! :D $\endgroup$ – João Mendes Sep 8 at 14:19
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Design the food around your world culture. being elf-like creatures which often preferred proper cooked/decorated food (being high-tasted, noble like elf etc), combine with the opposite war-oriented which need a quick / easy-to-cook / long life span high nourishment food. with this idea in mind you can come up with something very interesting.

For example

-For aristocrat, you can just google irl high end restaurant menu and adjust a bit since they can afford their elf part being high-tasted (some other menu that you really want it in the scene but can't fit in, you can just categorized it as 'import good')

-For public general, meat-based grill/roast quick served in medium rare with a mashed foreign potatoes, and a touch of some hack spice in your world ('really good taste spice that widely used by this society' equivalent seasoning powder irl), maybe they have enough time/patience to make bakery/brewing stuff (who doesn't like a good beer after a fight? even if alcohol drinks is expensive good, they could learn to make a moonshine themselves )

-For frontier/war zone, meat-based smoked/stream + carbohydrate wrapper (imagine Sub-ways sandwich but lower quality)+ dried exotic fruit(for vitamin like prunes,grape etc) high perseverance,have required nutrient, still look nice when put together.

suiting both elf-like and war-oriented.

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Beyond just the plants and animals available, also take a moment to consider the climate.

For example: in cold locations, food tends towards high in sugar/fat, warm, and high liquid content. The high sugar/fat content provides energy for the body to burn to keep itself warm. Similarly, food with a high temperature warms the body through, and water has quite a high Specific Heat Capacity - that is, to say, it holds heat well, lots of it and for a relatively long time, so a belly full of a hot broth keeps you feeling warm. Long winters will lead to plenty of preserved foods, such as jams, pickles, or smoked meats.

In moderate countries, the food tends to get lighter — less heavy and filling — and closer to room temperature. This allows for more delicate interplay of subtle flavours. Water is not needed to retain heat, nor to replace lost fluids, so the cuisine can be 'drier'.

In hot countries, you will either can have both very dry foods (to reduce spoilage, and prevent evaporation) and very wet foods (to replace lost fluids), depending on local humidity. High levels of salt are common — since people will lose electrolytes through sweat — as too are spicy foods: the spice tricks the body into thinking that it is hotter than it is, which makes you sweat more, so the evaporation cools you down further (this is less effective, and thus less common, in areas of high humidity). If the temperatures cause certain foods to spoil more easily, then they may be accompanied by strong flavours, to hide the edge-cases.

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Cannibalism

Prions make cannibalism a cultural trait that generally isn't positive for humans. Kuru is one example of what can go wrong. Your elves may not have the same issues with malformed proteins though.

We do know that cannibalism occurred in numerous human societies over time. In a warrior society with limited farming capabilities, you don't pass up any available food, so it's basic common sense to eat your dead. Of course there are records of this from European explorers, most notably in areas such as the Pacific islands where tribes then had exactly this kind of warrior society and limited farming. Going back in time though, we have early hominid skeletons with cut marks on the bones demonstrating that they were butchered for cooking. So it's been going on for a while.

Various authors have used this for "otherness" of alien species' food cultures. Dredging my memory, the Shand from Strata by Terry Pratchett may be the clearest example. And I seem to remember that Poul Anderson's Cynthians also were (the character Chee Lan, one of David Falkayn's sidekicks, who's basically a female Rocket Raccoon).

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A very believable food source for any fantasy (works for scifi too) is Green Milk. You can have your Elf people milk the green ooze straight from the sagging teat of some weird cow-type species.

This is highly believable for the masses, whilst implanting wonder in the audience (due to the green color).

Any scene with the green milk should show your characters milking and drinking it directly from the udders. This will, in no way, creep out your audience or ridicule your main characters to the extent of disbelief.

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How to go about it:

Describing texture and color is unimportant. If that's the only thing you do, it feels tacked on.

The value of strong world building is that individual parts inform us about the whole system. So you should focus on the interconnectedness of your food to your world.

So, you could present your character with a rare dish. This would tell the reader something about the situation and about characters and the world: -He is valued/they want to impress him/they are rich. -Or the dish is normally rare, but seemingly not for this culture. This tells the readers the culture are good hunters if it is a dangerous animals meat. Or if they export the dish it tells your readers how they make money. -The dish could inform about religion/tradition, which in turn informs about a lot of other stuff.

But that's just examples. Find out the why. Find out why the food is important to the people, the culture and the world.

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Go More Primitive

Elven culture is often depicted as being more close to nature than human culture. Since you are planning a more warlike version of elves, you could perhaps look at some of the semi-nomadic warrior cultures of North America like the Arapaho for inspiration.

Instead of pushing elven cuisine divergently forward from human tastes, you could hold it back to more of what these hunter/gatherer peoples would have at their disposal. The humans in your setting could be more like European culture having soups, sausages, cheezes, bread, and a variety of other heavily seasoned and processed foods that require agriculture, supply chains, and specialized preparation.

In contrast, your elves would only eat what can be eaten raw or cooked over a basic fire pits. Without the use of pots or other fancy cookware you'd see a lot of smoked and dried meats, raw fruits, nuts, and vegetables, etc. Since they don't rely on bulk agriculture, you'd also see a lot more variety of things they might consider normal to eat. Pinenuts, acorns, insects, reptile meat, thistle, various roots, various plant shoots (many toxic plants are edible if eaten young enough), etc.

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Perhaps you should make the food the same as where you the setting is:

eg.: Woods=Mushroom Soufle(idk if it's spelled right), Desert=Deadbark Dinners, Italy=Spaghetti, Snowcapped=Wolf

If you can think of one basic ingredient based on where you/the characters are, you can make a tree of foods as ideas!

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You might also consider the size relationship between your characters and the biome. Are the much larger than the things they eat? Or much smaller? How does that affect what they can obtain as food and consume?

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