Friday, February 17, 2012

Breakfast in Iskandalon

I am walking the sand-blown streets of Iskandalon at dawn, looking for something good to eat. I’m tired, I’m hungry, and my feet are hurting after shuffling from one disappointing meal to another. How did I end up here on this fool’s errand in the City of Letters, you ask? Simple enough: I wrote a book.

No one ever told me that writing was the easiest part of being an author. Had I known this, I probably would never have set stylus to papyrus in the first place, but more than two decades later it was far too late to unwrite what I had written. For better or for worse, Confessions of a Gourmand was a completed manuscript, a copy of it residing deep within the bowels of the Great Library itself, fulfilling a promise that I had made long ago as a child. I wonder if the book would ever be called up from its resting place at a scholar’s bidding, or would it lay there until its unread pages crumbled into dust? Only time would tell.

Even after I’d written Confessions, it didn’t even occur to me to try and sell it at first. Varonians aren’t exactly known as the literary type, and besides, I didn’t know the slightest thing about the bookseller’s trade. I’d been content to give an occasional reading to select friends and visiting chefs, scholars, and other connoisseurs when after one particular gathering I was approached by a curious diminutive fellow by the name of Heinrich.

Heinrich is a wizened gnomish man of indeterminate yet undeniably old age who owns an emporium of sorts in the parish of Marilia, a tower crammed full of exotic imports and curiosities from all over the Three Continents and beyond. As his beady eyes shone from behind a tiny pair of spectacles, Heinrich waxed enthusiastic about my reading and inquired as to whether or not I had representation for my manuscript. After splitting a few bottles of Salumar brandy and sealing the deal with a clumsy drunken handshake, I had myself an agent.

“Go to Iskandalon,” my agent told me a few weeks later. “Find something nice to say about their food.”

“Why?” I asked over dim sum. It was a busy morning at my eating palace, but I’d reserved a booth to meet with Heinrich to discuss his progress in selling my book.

Heinrich stabbed a curry pork bun with a chopstick and wagged it me. “Because you totally savaged Iskandalonian cuisine in your manuscript, that’s why!”

“But it’s awful.”

“That’s too bad. Do you know who buy books? Iskandalonians.”

I watched as Heinrich nibbles at the speared pastry like a piece of skewered street meat. I wondered if I’ve made a mistake in agreeing to let this weird little man be my agent, and if it’s not too late to call the deal off. But truth be told, ever since Heinrich came to me with promises of a wider audience for Confessions I’ve been almost giddy with excitement at the prospect. It’s not that being one of the City’s most celebrated chefs wasn’t fulfillment in and of itself, but my writing scratched an itch that I never even realized that I’d had, and the idea of being some kind of Varonian man of letters (a contradiction in terms, if there ever was one!) appealed to me.

But what Heinrich was asking me now, this went too far, and I told him as much. I was willing to do many things in order to sell my book, but lying wasn’t one of them.

“So you mean to tell me that you’ve never eaten a meal in I-town that you enjoyed?”

I grimaced, remembering every dish in excruciating detail. Because that’s what Iskandalonian cuisine is- details, details, details. It’s as if their chefs had combed through three thousand years of cookbooks in their beloved Great Library’s stacks in order to find a few more extraneous ingredients to add to their saucepots. ‘Take a pheasant’s tongue, royal jelly from the nest of the Tiglarnan wasp, and the tincture of Rhasmodeus, which is pounded from the following fourteen elements…’ Bah! I’d sooner eat a moldering manuscript.

“Can’t say that I have.”

“Well then, that’s your first mission.”

“Mission? Whatever are you talking about!”

Heinrich’s eyes sparkled mischievously. “I’m talking about sending you back out there—out into the world whose food you’re so eager to pass judgment on. Why, on page three of your own book you say it yourself: ‘Some things need to be seen with one’s own eyes, smelled with one’s own nose, tasted with one’s own lips and tongue.’ Tell me this, when’s the last time you left the City?”

The gnome had a point. It had been quite some time since I’d left the comfortable surroundings of my own eating palace, let alone Varo herself. It was easy enough to make excuses for such complaisance—after all, I had a business to run, didn’t I?—but it was hard to explain why I’d always been able to make time to explore before. Maybe I was just getting old.

Before I could offer up this or any other lame rationalization, however, Heinrich continued. “Then it’s settled. You will go to Iskandalon. I forbid you to return until you have found something worth eating. Capisce?”

I half-nodded before sputtering out the obvious objection. “B-but my eating palace. Who will run it in my absence?”

“I’ll keep an eye on the place, don’t you worry. I’m sure your chefs would be thrilled to have you out of town for a spell anyway.”

Knowing full well what kind of dragon I can be in the kitchen, I could only sigh in agreement at this. With me refusing so much as to take one night off it was a miracle that any of my staff returned every morning. If my mother could only see how much of her son I had truly become!

“Fine. When do I leave?”


The passage from the City to the mainland seemed to take forever. Our passenger ferry had set out from Terminalia at ebb tide, which surely didn’t help, and failing to find a favorable wind we were obliged to tack a roundabout northern course to the Varony. The sea was glassy and opaque, almost as if it is made out of obsidian, and throughout the voyage we were harassed by mosquitoes and greenheads, those ubiquitous bloodsucking insects that inhabit the shifting dunes along the islands of Alandi. We swatted and swore and sweltered in the unexpected heat of a sunny late Spring day, wishing for a downpour to drive off the insect swarms and cool our bodies for a spell. But alas, the rain that you could almost set your clock by in Varo never came, nor did the wind, so it was well after dark when we finally crossed the bay.

Putting in at San Sebastiano, those of us who are bound for parts further inland were obliged to spend the night. I was cranky and sunburned at this point, and the last thing I wanted to do was waste several additional hours waiting for the next riverboat, so I was in a foul mood indeed when it comes time to eat. I wanted to be comforted by the rich and rosemary-scented lamb stew I am offered by the inn’s proprietor cum head chef, but all it did was remind me of how much better a job I think I could do in my own kitchen. Questioning the wisdom of this journey at the outset, I could only shudder at what horrors awaited me on the road ahead. There’s a reason that people don’t leave the City, I told myself as a kind of affirmation, even as my tongue told me that this stew was in fact something special, something worth praising, something worth coming back to someday when I’m not feeling like the World’s Greatest Snob. Disculpa me, kind innkeeper of the Bear and the Boar. The next time you are in Varo, the pork buns are on me.

My crawl up the River Varo was no more pleasant than the previous day’s sea voyage. Had it always taken so long to travel from one place to another? No wonder I didn’t travel anymore! To see the world takes a certain kind of tolerance I had all but forgotten-- like a gourmand who loses his tongue for spicy food, every thing I bit into on this trip seemed like an irritation, not a pleasure, my only solace coming from dreaming up the various insults I would heap upon Heinrich when I returned for making me leave my eating palace in the first place. Days blurred into one another as we traded our riverboat for a canal barge and continued our slow progress for the Iskandalonian frontier. As the vineyards and orchards of the Varony gave way to ever more broken hill-country, we abandoned our barge and took an overland stage coach to the so-called Golden Road, which wends through the mountains and connects Iskandalon to its vassal states and the distant outpost of Wildwaters’ Meet.

I used to live for the chance to sample road food whenever I traveled, but now I was approaching each opportunity with equal parts apprehension and disgust. How had I ever relished such things? I tried my best to be polite, but couldn’t help but mutter my various misgivings to my travel companions, who by that point had decided the best strategy for dealing with me was not to respond to a word that I say, lest I interpret their answers as some kind of invitation to continue. Before my hapless fellow travelers lost their patience with me entirely and abandoned me in the desert, however, we arrived at Wyvern Pass-- the last waystation before we crossed into the broad arid valley of the River Moruz, where the city of Iskandalon is situated.

In previous centuries, the fortress at Wyvern Pass was a bulwark that held back the savage tide of Raynar hordelings or whatever other nation’s armies were on the march, but nowadays it merely gave weary passengers the opportunity to stretch their legs and wet their parches lips from the waters of its deep, cold springs. My own companions were almost weeping with joy at the prospect of being able to escape from my finicky tirades, and I was left to wander the dusty courtyard of this ancient keep alone. There was a small market hawking useless trinkets and a bored-looking old man carving cold greasy hunks of an animal whose name I couldn’t quite make out but tasted gamey and overcooked.

“You are most fortunate,” a guard decked out in full Crusader bronze informed me as I tried to swallow my lunch. “The last stage was attacked by wyverns!”

I blinked at the man, whose grin was friendly, not mocking. “Come again?”

“Wyverns,” he nodded for emphasis. “They are migrating across the Sea of Deltaine right now, on their way up to the Cliffs of Pocaal. Hungry as sin as well. One of them plucked the stage driver right off of his perch and carried him away for dinner!”

I’d always wondered why they called this notch in the mountains Wyvern Pass. Now I knew!

We made our descent to the plain amid a dry storm that hurled sheets of sand at us, blinding our horses and reducing our progress to a crawl. If such a thing is possible, I was in an even fouler mood than before, as one of the chief pleasures of approaching the city of Iskandalon is the view of the Great Library towering above all, and we had been cheated of even that. Obliged to keep the windows of our stagecoach tightly shut, we barely registered that we have arrived until there was a loud banging on the side of the door and we were disgorged en masse into a large sandstone portico. Before I could decide whether I should apologize to the other passengers for my rude behavior they had disappeared to a man, and I was all by myself-- I slung my wok over my shoulder (I told you I never leave home without it!), adjusted the knife on my belt, and ventured into the City of Letters in search of a decent meal.

I had high hopes for my first stop—Bibliovore, a restaurant I had heard about near the Inkwell, an area where for centuries artisans ground various materials into the red and black pigments used in the Great Library’s Scriptorium. Owing to its proximity to the acropolis on which the Library complex stands, the Inkwell had become one of Iskandalon’s more fashionable neighborhoods, displacing the pigment makers to the ghettoes along the Psellian Wall, the outer marker of the Old City. Bibliovore had opened during this minor urban renaissance and was the first name on anyone’s lips whenever someone dared to mention fine dining and Iskandalon in the same breath, its owner a former Priest of Truth who had decided to forsake his holy calling at the Library for an even more sublime vocation in the kitchen. Or so I’d hoped.

Alas, it was but a sweet mirage. While Father Tireisias’ food aspires to break out of the baroque Western Salumar mold, it does so by being overly clever. The décor of Bibliovore is the first of many warning signs, as the restaurant is so cluttered with reproductions of fine art that one fears that he’ll knock over a priceless vase when reaching for his drink. The menu itself arrives in the form of a tome heavy enough to kill a wyvern, and is replete with extensive commentary not just on the menu items but the provenance of their component ingredients as well. Is this all some carefully crafted joke, I wondered as I browsed the critical apparatus, where the owner/head chef offers his own learned theories on the proper pronunciation of the High Salumar word for oregano.

Indeed, as the dishes were brought out I did detect a strong sense of humor at play, but time and time again each attempt to lighten the palate failed to escape the overwrought foundation of traditional Iskandalonian cuisine. Even in a sublimely deconstructed meal such as Father Tireisias’ Cyclopean Pears in Aspic there was one too many spices, just a shade too much artifice. It is almost as if the head chef knows what he has to do and almost pulls it off, only to lose heart at the very end and retreat to what is known and comfortable. Perhaps the good Priest of On will one day see the Truth and dare to cook without the footnotes of his culinary forebears, but until then I’m afraid Bibliovore is just an old book in an attractive new binding.

The evening continued in a similarly depressing fashion as I moved from venue to venue, sampling what I could while grilling my fellow diners for that elusive something better. Time and time again I would get my hopes up by a furtively whispered culinary secret, only to end up in a bistro serving the same old heavy sauces, the same kaleidoscope of overused spices.

‘Try Ismail’s,’ a fellow gourmand avowed.

‘The quail eggs at the Desert Rose!’ said another.

Blue dragon steaks at Kharamlambos’ sounded promising, but the eatery named after Iskandalon’s most celebrated food critic served up its signature dish in a glaze so thick it was like eating some kind of weird candied dragon brittle.

The night ground along and I kept following my leads with taste buds that grew ever more weary with every stop. My breaking point came at a place called The Sultan, an underground catacomb dating back to the Raynar invasions which claimed to serve authentic Ashlan Cherin cuisine. As the Ashlan have been in Iskandalon for several centuries, I thought if at least I could eat a decent meal at The Sultan I could accord the city some culinary honor, even if it would be on a technicality. But no, the food there was only remarkable insofar as it was not Iskandalonian. No self-respecting man or woman of Cherin blood would call The Sultan’s blood soup worthy of their ancestors’ veins.

So here I am. I have failed, just as I told Heinrich when he sent me on this damned fool mission in the first place. So much for making nice with the Iskandalonians. So much for rekindling my love affair with the world’s cuisine. My worst fears are confirmed- I have been a Canalsider for too long.

So much for selling any books.

My stomach is rumbling. How can it be that after a night of aimless gourmanderie I can still be hungry? But I know the reason why- although I have eaten my fill several times over, I have yet to satiate my appetite. Now that the night sky is giving way to a purplish desert dawn, I’m despondent that I will be able to satisfy that latter deeper hunger as long as I stay within the valley of the River Moruz.

I am sorry, Iskandalon, but this time you can’t say I didn’t try.

On the way back to my guest lodging near the Gardens of Fire, where the fountains run with burning liquid naphtha, my nose is struck by an enticing aroma. Someone is boiling chickpeas. I follow the breeze back to its source, where an Iskandalonian woman is stirring a huge alabaster container above a brass jet of natural gas (one of the more infuriating things about Iskandalon is that its entire city is a kitchen waiting to happen, its undercity a complex of gas pipes capable of firing a million cooking ovens if it so chose!). She smiles as I approach and greets me warmly in Salumar.

“Come for breakfast, young man?”

I blush, as I am hardly young anymore, but I nod nevertheless as I draw even closer. Next to the stone kettle of chickpeas is a series of pots containing all manners of fresh and cooked ingredients—sesame paste, crushed chilies, cumin seed, capers, pickled turnips, chopped coriander, and soft-boiled eggs of different shapes, sizes, and colors. I take a strong draught of the boiling chickpeas and can smell a generous amount of garlic. After binging on the overly-complex dishes of Iskandalon’s finest restaurants, this simple smell is a tonic for the body and soul.

Without saying another word the woman draws a generous ladle of chickpeas and broth from the kettle and pours it into a large earthenware bowl similar to those in Shan-li noodle shops. She then hovers next to the smaller pots and looks at me expectantly.

“Opoio thelete, Kyria.” I say. Whatever you wish. She smiles again and dresses the bowl quickly but deliberately. A dollop of sesame paste, followed by a sprinkling of chili, a handful of turnips, then not one, not two, but three different eggs, which ooze their semisoft yolks over the mound of chickpeas as they break. One is a quail egg, I’m certain, and another I identify as the Death’s Head Peacock from its copper-colored yolk. But the third? I point and ask.

“Drakoulion,” she replies. Wyvern’s egg. I have never eaten such a thing, and already I am licking my lips in anticipation.

Another handful of this, another pinch of that. When she reaches for one of the saucepots at the end of the bench, however, I wince. This is where the magic ends, I tell myself. Another potentially delicious Iskandalonian meal ruined by a twenty-ingredient finishing sludge. I want to stop her, but after telling her to make the meal her way that would be an unforgivable insult. I will simply smile, eat my breakfast, and do my best to imagine what might have been.

She sticks a wooden spoon into the mound of food, then hands the bowl over with a curtsy. I sniff at the chickpea mixture and am surprised that whatever the woman added at the end doesn’t immediately overwhelm my senses. Still cautious, I taste a spoonful just as the dawn breaks over the sandstone cityscape-- it is nothing short of a revelation. The al dente stewed chickpeas are seasoned in a manner that is quintessentially Iskandalonian yet not overbearing in the slightest, the bite of garlic harmonizing perfectly with the Western Salumar curry. The egg yolks have mixed with the sesame paste to form a velvet-textured sauce that soaks up the other flavors effortlessly and gives the chickpeas a more substantial heft.

As I gulp down mouthful after mouthful, the woman hands me a flatbread loaf of psomi still hot from the open oven and enjoins me to mop up the sauce with it, which I do, thanking her with my mouth full much to her mirth. I finish the bowl and immediately start plotting a second helping, but something is still eluding me here.

“That last sauce,” I ask the woman in Salumar. “What was it?”

The woman laughs and her preternaturally blue eyes twinkle. “It is nothing.”

I almost choke on my flatbread. “Nothing?”

She nods and laughs again, inviting me to examine the empty saucepot.

“But why?”

“Because they expect it. And who I am to tell them that it is better without it?”

I laugh at this, because it’s so perfectly Iskandalonian. But where Father Tireisias failed, this street-vendor has succeeded. And breakfast is served. I will have three bowls in total before I settle my tab and waddle back to the guesthouse. My feet are still sore, but my belly is full, and for the first time since leaving the City my hunger is truly satisfied. Mission accomplished. I look forward to sending Heinrich a letter from this City of Letters, informing him that I have succeeded in doing the impossible and that I eagerly await his next culinary challenge with open arms and reinvigorated appetite.

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