With U.S. Thanksgiving upon us, I find myself thinking about food. It also makes me think about food in games - because I'm a giant dork like that. Food is a huge part of not only our culture, but also of the terrain around us. The diet of people who live on the coast, and that of people who live far from sea are very different, and what is on the menu in a given place can say a lot. This can be even a bigger deal and more telling in Fantasy universes. Today I want to talk about that.
You Can Say A Lot With Food
Not to reiterate the intro, but you can say a lot with food. How much? Well, if you read Game of Thrones you can see just how much George R.R. Martin is able to fill pages with talk of food - and unsurprisingly George Martin is a big fan of food in history. Regional differences in what is available, as well as economics, exports, imports, and a huge chunk of a places entire relationship with the world around it can be told through food.
In Rokugan there are large differences in the food the various clans have. The Lion traditionally have very bland food. They have the normal accoutrements you'd expect from Rokugani cuisine, but it is generally mild in taste. The equivalent of everything being boiled in the North Eastern parts of the U.S. circa the 40s. The Scorpion clan on the other hand has very spicy food, rich in flavor and hot. The common joke for this is it is to cover poison, and that may be true, but spicy food also effects your odor and sweat. The scorpion therefore have a distinct odor...except for the ninja who specifically (by historical documentation) ate very bland food to not have a strong odor when out skulking about. Which makes the scorpion's food another part of the great deception they use to do their job.
More Was Available Than You May Realize
Fun fact: humanity invented Ice Cream around 3000 BC. The same with yogurt and sour cream. That means we've literally had ice cream longer than we've had the Great Pyramids, because Ancient Egypt started about 2300 BC.
That is the real world. Now thiink about a fantasy world with magic. Think about what you can have with ice breathing dragons and creatures that literally have fire for blood.
Details Can Make It Real
There are several big parts to how food works. Texture, flavor, and spice.
Texture is how it feels in the mouth - or hand - and can have a big difference in the experience. Is the food stiff? Chewy? Slimy? Does it kind of slither down the throat or does it have to be worked, and worked hard, with the teeth? Does it cut the roof of your mouth? Think of the differences in a sandwich made with softer bread - like from 7-11 - and one made with baked french bread where the crust is firm and hard. They feel different in your mouth, and if you have someone who loves sandwiches in your life they probably greatly enjoy the difference.
Flavor is the actual taste and what most people think of when they think of food. Everything tastes like chicken right? Or beef? White bread and wheat bread have different flavors. Flavor is also hard to describe since we basically just compare it to other things when describing them. Hence why we say it "tastes like chicken."
Spice is the other part of flavor, but it is separated for a reason. Is something spicy? Salty? Sweet? Sour? Is it some combination of the above? A spicy, sweet chicken will taste different than a salty, sour chicken. The combination of salty and sweet is widely regarded as snack food and for things like trail mix.
Put these all together and you can give people what they need to create the flavor in their head. Think of a spicy, dry chicken with a sweet and sour sauce you can pour on it.
There Are Tools To Help
As ever, the internet is a helpful place, and there are tools to help you set up menus. Either for when the PCs are in an area, or for help when planning someplace out. You can just google search the type of region and food, or you can use websites like donjon which has menus made in its random inn generator. How much variance each has depends on the tool, but there is plenty of help online.
Ultimately, food may not matter for your game and that is fine. But if you want to make a place feel more real it's good to at least give it a nod.