Food in Fiction


By Karin Cather

Editor & Ghostwriter

Category: Editing | Writing

Published February 28, 2018

How many of us have favorite books in which there is food that drives the plot or characterization or just makes the story more interesting? How many of us remember those foods fondly? Maybe those foods make the book even more memorable. Maybe we even associate the foods with the books!

A discussion came up in a forum full of editors about when to edit fiction so as to change a food from another culture to one that is familiar to an American readership. It came about because a book that was being written in part for an American audience was taking place in another country, and there were two foods that played a prominent part in that book that Americans were unlikely to have heard of. The question was whether to change the foods to some sort of equivalent so that American readers–the target audience–would recognize them. The consensus was that doing such a thing would be a terrible idea.

Consider A Suitable Boy.

Mansoor said, ‘Will you have some tea, Sahib? Or coffee?’
‘Just now you offered me nimbu pani.’

‘Yes, Sahib.’

‘A glass of nimbu pani.’

‘Yes, Sahib. At once.’ Mansoor made to go.

‘And oh—’

‘Are there any arrowroot biscuits in this house?’

‘I think so, Sahib.’

Mansoor came in with the nimbu pani and a plate of arrowroot biscuits. He noticed the expression on Dr Seth’s face and stood hesitantly by the door.

‘Yes, yes, put it down here, what are you waiting for?’

Mansoor set the tray down on a small glass-topped table and turned to leave. Dr Seth took a sip and bellowed in fury—‘Scoundrel!”

Mansoor turned, trembling. He was only sixteen, and was standing in for his father, who had taken a short leave. None of his teachers during his five years at his village school had inspired in him such erratic terror as Burri Memsahib’s crazy father.

‘You rogue—do you want to poison me?’

‘No, Sahib.’

‘What have you given me?’

‘Nimbu pani, Sahib.’

Dr Seth, jowls shaking, looked closely at Mansoor. Was he trying to cheek him?

‘Of course it is nimbu pani. Did you think I thought it was whisky?’

‘Sahib.’ Mansoor was nonplussed.

‘What have you put in it?’

‘Sugar, Sahib.’

‘You buffoon! I have my nimbu pani made with salt, not with sugar,’ roared Dr Kishen Chand Seth. ‘Sugar is poison for me. I have diabetes, like your Burri Memsahib. How many times have I told you that?’

Mansoor was tempted to reply, ‘Never,’ but thought better of it. Usually, Dr Seth had tea, and he brought the milk and sugar separately.

Dr Kishen Chand Seth rapped his stick on the floor. ‘Go. Why are you staring at me like an owl?’

‘Yes, Sahib. I’ll make another glass.’

‘Leave it. No. Yes—make another glass.’

‘With salt, Sahib.’ Mansoor ventured to smile. He had quite a nice smile.

‘What are you laughing at like a donkey?’ asked Dr Seth. ‘With salt, of course.’

‘Yes, Sahib.’

‘And, idiot—’

‘With pepper, too.’[1]

A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth, is a great work of literature that takes place in India at the time of India’s independence from Britain and Pakistan’s partition from India. This passage is meant to illustrate the temperament of a major character.

How many of us Americans have heard of nimbu pani? Does this passage lose any effectiveness for Americans because we’ve never heard of it? Should the author have changed it to something recognizable to Americans? Or should we rely on context clues or bloody well look it up instead of changing it to, God help us, something like Coca-Cola and Diet Coke? Nimbu pani is not soda, and it’s not even Western lemonade. It’s a cold refreshing drink containing lemons or limes, cumin powder, salt or black salt, sugar, chaat masala, mint leaves, and ice cubes. Chaat masala is a spice blend and black salt is a pungent form of table salt. I want some nimbu pani right now.

Speaking of foods Americans haven’t heard of:

For example, this morning for breakfast I had Ready Brek and some hot raspberry milk shake.[2]


Then Father said, “I’ll stick one of those Gobi Aloo Sag things in the oven for you, OK?”
This is because I like Indian food because it has a strong taste. But Gobi Aloo Sag is yellow, so I put red food coloring into it before I eat it. And I keep a little plastic bottle of this in my special food box.[3]

Wait, what? So I’ve mentioned nimbu pani, Ready Brek, hot raspberry milk shake, and Gobi Aloo Sag. None of these things are typical foods in the US. I’d never heard about any of these! Have you?

Well, Ready Brek is a kind of oatmeal that has no lumps. The protagonist has high-functioning autism and goes into a lot of detail about his difficulties with food, color, and texture. For someone sensitive to texture, lumps would make an otherwise delicious breakfast inedible and so this matters. Further, it adds to the credibility of the protagonist. Gobi aloo saag (with two A’s) is potato, cauliflower, spinach curry and is definitely yellow. Indian food is very popular in England, and a lot more widely available than it is here in the US, and it is likely that readers in the UK wouldn’t have had to look that up, either. If Americans are part of the intended audience, should American readers have to?

Yes!! Otherwise we miss out. (Anyone want to go out for a glass of nimbu pani?)

Now most of us have read The Chronicles of Narnia, right? One of the first things that happens in this riveting series is this:

The Queen took from somewhere among her wrappings a very small bottle which looked as if it were made of copper. Then, holding out her arm, she let one drop fall from it on to the snow beside the sledge. Edmund saw the drop for a second in mid-air, shining like a diamond. But the moment it touched the snow there was a hissing sound and there stood a jewelled cup full of something that steamed. The Dwarf immediately took this and handed it to Edmund with a bow and a smile; not a very nice smile. Edmund felt much better as he began to sip the hot drink. It was something he had never tasted before, very sweet and foamy and creamy, and it warmed him right down to his toes.[4]

Hello?? What drink was that? I want some, don’t you? If you’ve read the book, do you remember this drink? Edmund is freezing cold. He’s been walking in the snow without a coat. And the White Witch gives him some of this delectable-sounding drink.

What happens next? The Queen offers Edmund food—but not just any food.

“It is dull, Son of Adam, to drink without eating,” said the Queen presently. “What would you like best to eat?”

“Turkish Delight, please, your Majesty,” said Edmund.

The Queen let another drop fall from her bottle on to the snow, and instantly there appeared a round box, tied with green silk ribbon, which, when opened, turned out to contain several pounds of the best Turkish Delight. Each piece was sweet and light to the very centre and Edmund had never tasted anything more delicious. He was quite warm now, and very comfortable….

At last the Turkish Delight was all finished and Edmund was looking very hard at the empty box and wishing that she would ask him whether he would like some more. Probably the Queen knew quite well what he was thinking; for she knew, though Edmund did not, that this was enchanted Turkish Delight and that anyone who had once tasted it would want more and more of it, and would even, if they were allowed, go on eating it till they killed themselves. But she did not offer him any more. Instead, she said to him, “Son of Adam, I should so much like to see your brother and your two sisters. Will you bring them to me?”

“I’ll try, said Edmund, still looking at the empty box.

“Because, if you did come again—bringing them with you of course—I’d be able to give you some more Turkish Delight.”[5]

What is Turkish Delight? I’ve only ever heard of it in this book. What about you? But it’s an obsession for a main character that sets in motion a betrayal and a pivotal moment for all of the main characters in the entire series. It is the direct equivalent of thirty pieces of silver. Would you have advised C.S. Lewis to change it to something more universally familiar?

So far, I’ve mentioned several real food items that we Americans have never heard of (unless we travel), and one that is not even identified—that hot, sweet, creamy drink that warmed Edmund to his toes. But what about foods that aren’t real? Like pavenders, for instance?

They had an excellent catch of pavenders, a beautiful rainbow-colored fish which they remember eating in Cair Paravel in the old days.

But [the dwarf] cheered up when it came to lighting the fire and showing them how to roast the fresh pavenders in the embers. Eating hot fish with no forks, and one pocket knife between five people, is a messy business and there were several burnt fingers before the meal was ended; but, as it was now nine o’clock and they had been up since five, nobody minded the burns so much as you might have expected.[6]

And then here is a way to cook eggs that we might not have heard of.

They breakfasted at last in another of the dark cellars…It was not such a breakfast as they would have chosen, for Caspian and Cornelius were thinking of venison pastries, and Peter and Edmund of buttered eggs and hot coffee, but what everyone got was a little bit of cold bear-meat (out of the boys’ pockets), a lump of hard cheese, an onion, and a mug of water. But, from the way that they fell to, anyone would have supposed it was delicious.[7]

Seriously, what are buttered eggs? I didn’t know, did you? Anyway, I looked them up, and buttered eggs are either eggs in the shell that are rubbed with butter to preserve them, a practice that might make the eggs taste of butter, or they are a form of scrambled egg cooked with lots of butter. No, really, lots of butter. Since the Pevensies are English and not Irish, I’m assuming that the buttered eggs referred to in Prince Caspian are the ones cooked in lots of butter.

No matter: Never heard of ’em; I had to look them up.

All four of these books are timeless. None of the authors is American. One of the beverages isn’t even identified, and it’s memorable, and one food isn’t even real (pavenders), and yet that scene is cozy, and that breakfast of roast pavenders strengthens the bond between main characters who have just met. What would have happened if someone had advised the authors to change the foods to American ones?

Tragedy, that’s what, even setting aside the moral problem of making an Indian meal in India contain only American foods. Or of forcing a British author to change British foods to American ones. The stories would have lost their identities and become monotonous. Just imagine, for instance, that whole scene with Dr Kishen Chand Seth being about regular Coke and not Diet Coke? Who would perpetrate such an outrage on a book like that??

And what about Edmund’s steaming hot drink? Can you imagine some officious person saying, “You have to identify the drink. Now, why don’t you say it’s hot chocolate?” But it isn’t hot chocolate?! C.S. Lewis would have told us so. And changing the drink to hot buttered rum would have removed the sense of enchantment.

And Turkish Delight? I have it on some authority that it doesn’t taste nearly as good to Americans as it did to WWII-era Britons, but it probably depends on the manufacturer. No one rational would have suggested to C.S. Lewis that he change Turkish Delight to Turkish Taffy or (oh no, please no) gum drops. It would ruin everything. It would be like changing Mr Spock’s plomeek soup to miso soup just because there is no such thing as plomeek soup, and Gene Roddenberry’s American audience is required to know just what Christine Chapel was preparing for her true love. (Of course there would be some fool who would insist on its being chicken soup despite Spock’s being a vegetarian.)

And doesn’t buttered eggs sound lovely? Why would someone change it to Frosted Flakes or bacon and eggs?

Any change to these foods would have taken the characters out of context and ruined the books. This is a totally separate issue from the soul-sucking idea that all foods must be recognizable to Americans even if the books don’t take place in the United States, or of how condescending that world view even is to most Americans.

First, do no harm.

Which foods and drinks do you remember from your favorite books?

UPDATE: July 5, 2016. I tried Turkish delight, today. Imported. It tastes like gumdrops.

UPDATE: I bought some more Turkish delight, only from a local vendor. It takes much better if there are so many other things added that you can’t taste the gum drops.

1. Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005), 36–38. A Suitable Boy should be taught alongside War and Peace, because it’s just that good. Maybe many of you haven’t read it. If not, I’ll wait while you quickly go order it online or resolve to go to your nearest bookstore and buy it.

Ordered it or bought it? Good. You’ll love it. Don’t be intimidated by the length; you’re going to be sad it’s not even longer by the time you’re finished with it.
2. Mark Haddon, the curious incident of the dog in the night-time (New York: Random House, 2005), 19.
3. Id. at 67.
4. C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc, 1975), 31.
5. Id. at 31–33.
6. C.S. Lewis, Prince Caspian (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1975), 33–34.
7. Id. at 168–169.

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  1. Sea

    Do no harm is the golden rule for every editor. Well done, Karin!

  2. Louise Adam

    In reading Anne of Green Gables, I could not wrap my head around calves’ foot jelly or calf’s foot jelly—a miraculous cure-all, from what I remember. Little did I realize that it was exactly what it sounded like. Had the book mentioned Ready Brek instead, I’d have understood. I remember the commercial for Ready Brek showed kids going to school after breakfast with a sort of nuclear red glow outlining their bodies.

    Great piece — hungry for some Indian food now, so thanks!

    • Karin Cather

      Calves’ foot jelly?? Oh, yeah? How ’bout head cheese? Thank you Laura Ingalls Wilder for that.

      • Louise Adam

        We have a rule in my house: You cannot eat head cheese in bed.

        • Karin Cather

          There’s a head cheese rule in your house? How did this happen?

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