Once Upon a Time – Food Inspired by Literature

Words: Julie Velosa | Photography: Matthew Ibboston

Food inspired by literature

Art comes in many different forms; from a postmodern painting hanging in a gallery to wild graffiti on a street wall – it’s subjective, personal and often deeply meaningful.

One of my favourite forms of art is that of the literary variety; for me, a great novel is pure escapism, conceptualised in the mind of the writer and penned for us to enjoy. I love the idea of getting lost in the pages of a book for hours, feeling the joys and the sorrows of the characters, being immersed in a different world, often a fictional one, where anything and everything is possible.

While TV is beautifully visual, there is something special about the description of landscapes, characters and especially food in the pages of a novel.

Your brain gets to conjure up flavours and aromas from mere descriptions and the possibilities are endless. I believe my inner foodie was nurtured from a young age with books like The Faraway Tree series by Enid Blyton, where Silky, Saucepan Man, Moon-Face and the children gobbled down google buns concealing fizzing sherbet, marvelled at pop biscuits filled with honey and sucked on toffee shocks that got increasingly bigger instead of smaller.

And who could forget the indomitable Famous Five and their equally famous picnics? With huge gleaming hams, lashings of hard-boiled eggs, new potatoes gleaming with melted butter and scattered with parsley and bottles of homemade salad cream. Fruitcake and drop-scones and ginger beer… they somehow make the most mundane of ingredients sound positively mouthwatering.

Having graduated to slightly more complex books, but still enjoying the heady descriptions of one of the subjects we love most – food, we tasked Chef Rudi Liebenberg of the Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel, to create four dishes inspired by modern-day works of literature.

Food Inspired by Literature

Bouillabaisse – features in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Food inspired by literature

Fantasy novels have seen a massive resurgence probably in part due to JK Rowling’s bespectacled wizarding hero, Harry Potter. In the fourth novel, The Goblet of Fire, Hermione Granger prepares a bouillabaisse for visiting French students from the Académie de Magie Beauxbâtons, who are at Hogwarts competing in the Triwizard Tournament. Ron Weasley and Hermione chat about this classically French dish, with Ron turning his nose up at it. He later claims its deliciousness, most likely to impress his French crush Fleur Delacour.

“What’s that?” said Ron, pointing at a large dish of some sort of shellfish stew that stood beside a large steak-and-kidney pudding.
“Bouillabaisse,” said Hermione.
“Bless you,” said Ron.
“It’s French. Hermione said. “I had it on holiday, summer before last, it’s very nice.”
“I’ll take your word for it.” Ron said.

Pork Pie and Salad – features in The Hobbit

Food inspired by literature

Probably the quintessential fantasy series is kicked off with The Hobbit and followed up by The Lord of The Rings trilogy. JRR Tolkien’s book series has captured the imaginations of people the world over.

It’s tough to choose what to recreate from these books – hobbits may just be the original foodies. The pint-sized (and pint-loving) characters are the originators of the organic, farm-to-table lifestyle. One of their most endearing qualities is their multiple meal strategy – breakfast, second breakfast, elevensies, luncheon, afternoon tea and so on. A good hobbit’s larders (yes, plural) are stocked with all manner of goodies from cheese, eggs and pickles, to buttered scones, raspberry jam, seed cakes, mince pies and fruit tarts.

In ‘The Unexpected Party’, the first chapter of The Hobbit, Gandalf and the dwarves arrive at an unsuspecting Bilbo’s house; Bilbo is flummoxed by the numerous requests from the dwarves, each wanting something different.

I hope there is something left for the late-comers to eat and drink! What’s that? Tea! No thank you! A little red wine, I think, for me.” “And for me,” said Thorin. “And raspberry jam and apple-tart,” said Bifur. “And mince-pies and cheese,” said Bofur. “And pork-pie and salad,” said Bombur. “And more cakes-and ale-and coffee, if you don’t mind,” called the other dwarves through the door.

Venison and Barley Stew – features in A Game Of Thrones

Food inspired by literature
Audiences around the globe have been on the edge of their seats as the gripping TV series Game of Thrones has played out. The show is an adaption of the original book series A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin and is brought to life in a gripping, violent way that is true to the novels. [Spoiler alert! If you haven’t completed the first season/first book don’t read any further]

Early on in the book, when things still seem fairly hunky dory in King’s Landing, a young Sansa Stark is being courted by a mild-mannered and quite angelic seeming Joffrey Baratheon. Despite some earlier hints of his savagery, Sansa is still seeing him through rose-tinted glasses and they sit down to enjoy the Hand’s Tourney feast, celebrating Ned Stark’s appointment as the King’s Hand. It’s probably just as well that Sansa ate up, as she most likely lost her appetite a little later on when the vindictive little royal decided to behead her father Ned Stark and pretty much sent the seven kingdoms of Westeros into a spiral of full-on chaos.

“Aurochs that roasted for hours, kitchen boys basted them with butter and herbs until the meat crackled and spit”; tables piled high with sweetgrass, strawberries, and fresh-baked bread. “All the while the courses came and went. A thick soup of barley and venison; salads of sweetgrass and spinach and plums sprinkled with crushed nuts; snails in honey and garlic; sweetbreads and pigeon pie, baked apples fragrant with cinnamon, and lemon cakes frosted in sugar.”

Wonton Soup – features in The Joy Luck Club


The Joy Luck Club is a novel by Amy Tan that narrates the lives of four Chinese women living in San Francisco and their relationships with their Chinese-American daughters. They gather monthly to discuss their lives and commiserate about their difficult pasts as they play mahjong. While food is not the central focus of the book it is one of the features that ties these women together, where there is a gathering of friends, there is food. It is an integral part of how these women connect with their culture as they come to grips with their lives in America, and also how they communicate their heritage to their daughters.

Food is an important part of what defines any culture around the world and Tan brings to life flavours and aromas of Chinese food that will make you want to rush out and make some for yourself.

“Time to eat, ” Auntie An-mei happily announces, bringing out a steaming pot of the wonton she was just wrapping. There are piles of food on the table, served buffet style, just like at the Kweilin feasts. My father is digging into the chow mein, which still sits in an oversize aluminum pan surrounded by little plastic packets of soy sauce. Auntie An-mei must have bought this on Clement Street. The wonton soup smells wonderful with delicate sprigs of cilantro floating on top. I’m drawn first to a large platter of chaswei, sweet barbecued pork cut into coin-sized slices, and then to a whole assortment of what I’ve always called finger goodies-thin-skinned pastries filled with chopped pork, beef, shrimp, and unknown stuffings that my mother used to describe as “nutritious things.”

Love these recipes? Check out more cooking inspiration.

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