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On Trade, and its Influence on Culture and its Cuisine

One of the projects that I’ve been wanting to work on is a cookbook of recipes from my books, some that are mentioned in the narrative and others that are not. It’s been a thought of mine for a good while, now, because other than writing, cooking and baking is a passion of mine. I’ve seen it done before with other series (such as Brian Jacques’ Redwall, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, and George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones) and I thought it would be fun to make one of my own.

But, as it turns out, it’s not so easy as collecting a bunch of recipes into a book and calling it a day.

Because worldbuilding.

Phen is a country and culture inspired by a mashup o fseveral different real-world cultures, which I have kept in mind and referred to when coming up with ideas of different dishes and takes on dishes. I have to research ingredients to see what grows in the climate I’ve chosen, which resources are available to the people and the ‘average home cook’. And one hugely major thing I’ve come across is the significance of trade.

We don’t really think about it too much in this day and age. We find a recipe we want, we go to the store, and we grab what we need from the shelves stocked with ingredients from literally all over the world without batting an eye. We have trade routes crisscrossing the globe, dating back hundreds and thousands of years.

But what happens if you’re at war with your neighbors andtrade with them doesn’t exist? You can’t get the stuff they grow and produce. With Phen being at odds with its eastern and southern neighbors, who have a far more subtropical and tropical climate, that means they can’t have some of the staples we’ve come to know and love. No peppercorns, no coffee, no cocoa; all those warm and cozy holiday spices? None. No cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, cardamom─ and that’s just scratching the surface. Where do they get their salt? All the water sources in the country are fresh (the Adrian Sea is actually a lake), so they have to mine it from veins of rock salt (halite) in the mountains. Albeit, this being a fantasy world, I could simply make up herbs and spices to use that replicate ones that wouldn’t be feasible in our own world, and granted, I have done that once or twice for a very special or specific flavor, but I also want to know in a realistic sense what is and what is not available and see if I can’t come up with unique ways to alter a recipe to the culture and what is most readily available.

Of course, Phen isn’t entirely isolated, either. Their relations with Bordag and Zedek to the west are fair enough, and Kollan has the biggest trade industry within the Zedekian markets . . . but then we get into commerce. By the time those southern goods make it around the mountains through trade routes with Bordag and up through Zedek, the price value of the goods is pretty significant, making them expensive. We wouldn’t offhandedly throw a pinch of saffron into anything for the sake of it, because it’s insanely pricey and something most of us go without in our pantry. The same could be said here for coriander, cashews, or citrus ─ it’s just too rare for the average Phennish household to keep in stock for anything besides a very special occasion or sparing use.

This whole idea about trade, what it provides and the influence it has on a culture and its cuisine, fascinates me, because if you think about it, there are ingredients and variations of dishes all across the world that were shared through trade routes. That’s how we get cardamom, a tropical spice, into Scandinavian pastries, and herbs like cilantro introduced to cooler climates.

Similarly, there’s also something to be said about the vast variety of crops and forage available in one’s native area. I have found a list of over two hundred crops cultivated in the temperate climate zone, which is the majority of where Phen is located, and I am certain that list is far from exhaustive. Things we see in hedgerows and roadsides and think nothing of are actually edible, nutritious, and even used in other parts of the world, like chicory, burdock, and sumac. It’s opened up new horizons for my own culinary explorations [although I do suggest taking care if you’re going to go hunting for chicory around the house if there’s even the slightest possibility of poison ivy around. I learned that the hard way, and got a rash that lasted a month even with medication. But it was for research! Research! And consequently, roasting chicory root smells an awful lot like chocolate.]

Now, I could probably go on about this subject for a while, and that notwithstanding the other exotic items on the trade market beyond food, but I will conclude with this: something as broad and expansive as trade has a remarkable impact on the culture of a place and what food is prepared in the home. So next time you sip that coffee or pull out that black pepper grinder or bite into a warm cinnamon roll, consider the journey these stuffs have undergone from where they’re grown in faraway places we may never step foot on all the way to our humble kitchens, and think about what we might be eating if we could no longer acquire them as easily as we do.

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