Foodbuilding as Worldbuilding — Creating Fantasy Cuisines

The foods we stuff down our gullets reflect the society we have established, the way we live our lives, and even our attitudes towards food itself. A society reliant on cheese must have established the necessary production and transport networks, while a person subsisting on caviar and champagne is unlikely to live the life of a wandering barbarian.

What you eat reflects who you are and your position in the world. As high-tech residents of the modern world, many of us can afford to not think about food in any depth. But would a hunter-gatherer struggling to survive be able to do likewise?

Where you are born also shapes your tastes and food norms. What is considered normal in one culture may be seen as exotic in another. Imagine then how different the eating habits of a fantasy race must be?

Like all things fantasy, fantasy food has the right to be fantastic. Centaurs and orcs should not need to eat the same as humans, and neither should elves, dwarves, pixies, or eldritch monsters.

To spread my foodbuilding obsession to the rest of the fiction world, I have written a short 4 part guide to helping you build a unique culinary world for your fantasy races. I hope they will help you build some wonderful (or horrid) foods for yourself and readers to immerse themselves in.

1. Setting up the Template

First we will have to establish what we are working with food wise and what the species in question can and wants to consume. We can decide this template in relation to Claude Lévi-Strauss’ culinary triangle, which links cooked, raw and rotten food according to human wants and needs. While all three food forms are consumed by humans, we have a cultural (and biological) prejudice towards cooked food to which we ascribe higher status than we do to raw food, which in turn receives higher status than rotten food.

The idea behind this dynamic is that cooking meat is a result of human society having become more cultured and capable of transforming that which it uses and consumes. Rotten food, on the other hand, is a result of nature exerting itself on raw food. Because the process of cooking is a direct extension of the cultures we humans live and thrive within, we are culturally predisposed to valuing cooked food above raw and rotten. Who after all, would want to eat rotten vegetables, or raw meat? This is even though the latter two are oftentimes still consumable and are also still consumed. Think for example of sauerkraut and tartar.

If you wish to distinguish the dietary habits of your fantasy race from humans, you would do well to change the value judgments within the triangle to something other than the human one. Beastfolk are depicted as being close to the wild, as such, their food pyramid may place raw food as the most prestigious food, while they may curl their noses at cooked or rotten food as an extension of their own non-human cultures. Similarly, the drow, goblins or other races who dwell in environments less fit for standard ways of preparing food (think of swamps or caves) might evolve to place rotten food at the top of their hierarchy.

Once we’ve got that set up, you can take it even further. What if one of your races is simply incapable of eating any forms of raw, rotten or cooked foods? How would that affect their society and way of life? The system becomes even more interesting when we start including other forms of food preparation other than cooking into the equation. What value judgments might elves have on smoked foods? Or Dwarves on dried foods? Or x on x?

To help you along, here comes Wikipedia to the rescue with a list of cooking techniques.

2. Building a Culinary Core

Now that we’ve established the basic template on which to construct your race’s food ways, it is time to decide what we are working with. What fruits are available? What produce? What wildlife? The environments in which your fantasy folk find themselves determines what foods they have access to. You won’t find potatoes in medieval Europe nor coconuts in the arctic. And unless your folk are masters of irrigation, they won’t produce rice in the desert (unless you will it so ⁠— this is fantasy after all).

Whatever food base you end up settling on, the folk within your world should build cuisines around them. Cuisines are established ways of cultivating, preparing, and consuming food within a specific community. Cuisines are thus based on tradition, and as time goes on, knowledge of what works spreads throughout the community, which in turn builds up a culinary knowledge of standardized traditions.

Cuisines, as a result of limited resources and the processes of tradition, always center themselves around a number of staple foods. Staple foods can be described as foods used by a people as the basis for their cuisine and recipes. They are ingredients that repeat over and over again within the cuisine.

In our world, different cultures use bread, pasta, maize, potatoes, milk, eggs, or yams among others as staple foods. These foods are consumed so regularly and in such large amounts that they stand above other foods. These foods have come to dominate their cuisines due to their convenience, nutritional value, and taste. To center the cuisines of your fantasy folk and to give your peoples cultural character, you should determine what their staple foods are. These foods will come to define your races and their cuisines, which in turn opens a world of worldbuilding opportunities. For example, how will the troll emissaries react when there are no mountain rocks to eat at the human court?

This is where you can go wild on the foodbuilding, as you are not limited to the human ways of doing things. Perhaps your drow’s cuisines have formed around the large-scale consumption of fermented worms. Or perhaps your centaurs have perfected the art of preparing grass in a million and one ways. Deep fried grass anyone? The options are endless with enough creativity, and if you pull it off, a fitting staple food will bring life and immersion to the decor of your worlds.

3. What is Conventional?

Have you ever asked yourself why desserts are sweet? Or why we eat three main meals in a day? Or why the fork goes in the left hand and the knife in the right? Just writing this out, I know a significant portion of those reading this will be confused about some of these assertions, as they are not universal for all cultures in our world.

To be sure, there are scientific reasons to explain these phenomena, but ultimately the reason why we separate our tastes and organize our cuisines is because of tradition. Your body would be absolutely fine if you were to eat sweet dinners and savory desserts, and whether you eat two or seven meals, the changes on your life will be minimal. We engage in these behavior patterns because they have become convention through protracted usage. They are ingrained into our cultural mindset.

But why would your fantasy folk behave the same way? A race that lives in the wilderness might have learned through seasonal scarcity that one meal per day and long periods of fasting is the ideal way to consume food. Another race might decide, quite arbitrarily, that all breakfasts are supposed to be salty and any other custom is barbaric. Repetition is a powerful thing, and if just one powerful person in a culture decides that one way is the right way for things to be done, it can lead to an entire culture following that custom. You can go in any direction you wish here.

4. Rule of 3

Now that we’ve sorted out the template and the base, and have thought about patterns to bring both to fruition, there is one step remaining: putting it to use. In other words, you need to build recipes for your people to use. How you decide to go about this is all up to you.

Perhaps you wish to use real world recipes and twist them around to suit your fantasy race?

Completely fine.

Perhaps you wish to jump the extra foodbuilding hurdle and come up with some fresh new ones yourself?

That’s the spirit!

Whatever you decide to do, my main tip for designing the dishes of your peoples is to try to keep things simple, and not get caught up in anything needlessly complicated. For all the art and science we spin around food, its ultimate purpose is to nourish, and a mere three ingredients can make a number of unique and memorable real-world recipes. What is a cheeseburger? A bun, meat and some cheese. A potato gratin? Potato, cheese and some egg. A pizza? Dough, tomato sauce and cheese. The point of the matter is that many iconic foods can be brought down to a simple two or three ingredients. Further embellishments to these recipes can always be added once you have constructed these bases.

If you keep the rule of 3 in mind, you should be safe from being slogged down in ceaseless foodbuilding, and you will surely end up with a wonderfully unique drow cuisine full of delicious fungi, pickled cave-fish and rotten worms. YUM

The other point of the matter is that you should use lots and lots of cheese in your foodbuilding, like a good civilized person.

I hope you found use in this article, and please share the magically horrible or frighteningly delicious foods you manage to conjure in the comments below. I’m happy to hear about them.

Latest posts by Roel Karstenberg (see all)
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1 month ago

“Today’s meal was on the cheaper side. A thin slice of pata vulcha, (a kind of old mushroom-based bread) each, dried mushrooms and a little bit of palracha pata (small cremini mushrooms chopped and left to accumulate edible molds which makes them rather softer and last much longer), all washed down with water. All of it was barely enough to fill a plate, but on holidays, the family ate soup and some dry-aged fish, which was already much better than many families had. The family could afford more nutricious dishes, but it would mean compromising the education of their only child.”

1 year ago

I am worldbuilding a drow cuisine. They eat mostly fungi, in any form imaginable except fried, simply because of how hard oil is to come by. However, one doesn’t just subsist on mushrooms. Edible molds, maggots and cave fish complete the diet. Bacteria fed centipedes or or the common large brown bat can be consumed by the elite. Small brown bats are almost never eaten and are considered common pets, just as the cave cat. The overall taste spectrum goes from bland, to acid to funky. Salt is very rarely employed due to it’s necessity in retaining moisture, and do to simply not being present in the caves.

2 years ago

Amazing insight. I’m bookmarking this!

Reply to  blondie.k
7 months ago

I also imagine that salt would be seen as so precious and important to the cave bizard ecosystem that it would be taboo to eat it, at least in large quantities.

Mike Van Horn
2 years ago

I use food and eating in many of my sci fi stories. Here’s a sample, narrated by Lucky:

She used her extended claw to stab a small pickled meat from a tray of oil. It looked like an anchovy but with four legs, like a lizard. She nibbled it delicately, starting with the head.

“Would you care for one?” she asked.

I was willing to try any of the local food. I used a skewer to pick one up and nibble it. Very pungent and salty.

“Very tasty in a small amount for me,” I said, but continued nibbling.

She ordered something else. The server brought her a mouse-sized furry beast in a cage and held it up for her to approve. She looked it in the eye. It looked back at her.

When she reached into the cage to grasp it, it squealed with terror. She extended one needle sharp claw and stabbed it between the shoulder blades. It was instantly limp, hopefully dead.

The server dipped it in a fluid for her and held it with tongs. He lit it with a candle. It burst into flame, quickly burning off the fur and cooking it somewhat.

Then she extended two claws, grasping the small critter as if with chopsticks. She delicately nibbled it, crunching its tiny skull.

I thought, but didn’t say, “Could I have a cheeseburger please, well done?” Instead, I ordered a tray of fruits and nuts and vegetables I had seen at other tables.

She folded the remaining half of her repast into her sleeve and begged forgiveness, “I am so sorry. I believed that your kind were also avid eaters of animals.”

“And so we are. But it is a peculiarity of ours that we prefer to separate the killing and eating. I do not want to dissuade you from the enjoyment of your fare. Please continue.”

(Not yet published)

2 years ago

Thank you, this really made me think and gave me some ideas I wouldn’t have had otherwise about a fantasy feast I’m planning.

Skip Knox
Skip Knox
2 years ago

Great post! I very much like how you give consideration to non-human foods and how those might work out. Well done, Queso Kid!

Maker of Things Not Kings
Maker of Things Not Kings
2 years ago

Love this post! The cuisine/food building aspect is always one of my favorites to dive into in stories and fantasy worlds. I could work on this more than any other type of world building if left to my own devices. My own love of cooking and food taught me that not all food cultures are created equal and that there is no end to the possibilities.

Lately I've been more prone to working around preservation methods within my stories. Picked, cured, salted and fermented foods are easy to create, require little in the way of advanced technology (at least in the old fashioned ways of doing them) and can be life saving in times of hardship as well as prosperous in short distance trading and exploration.

There are a vast enough array of food cultures on our planet to assist in inventing cuisines for every creature we can dream up to inhabit our worlds. And there are few things more fun to name than your own unique dishes, including the animals and plants that become part of the food chain as you go.

Discovering what grows in certain climates, what foods become literal "treasures" in the right season or agricultural situation and how foods traveled across the world all may inspire our greater worldbuilding from top to bottom.

One of my favorite sources is the Foods of England website which lists recipes and lovely little descriptions in the lexicon and measurements of the day from Victorian era England and earlier. Drinks, desserts, puddings. . . even rotten fruit. it's all there.

Inspiring to say the least.

Loved your take on food building Ban and I hope to see more discussions of the topic here in the future!

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