leg of lamb, a loaf of bread, a slice of cheese: these dishes are staples on tavern menus across many D&D campaigns, and for good reason. After all, it’s what we’re used to -- and by “we,” I mean folks who play fantasy games set in European-inspired worlds. But the tides are changing. We’re entering a new era of tabletop roleplaying games, one where diverse worlds, characters, and stories are becoming more and more commonplace. If you’re looking to diversify your game, then you’re in good company. And what better place to start than the cornerstone of many, if not most, D&D campaigns -- the tavern?
A word on context and the positionality of this article: I am a queer and trans Chinese-American person, sharing aspects of my heritage with you in a well-intentioned act of cultural exchange. Below, you’ll find three dishes I’ve eaten many times myself, as well as suggestions for how to incorporate them respectfully into your home game. Chinese food can be a contentious space for many non-Chinese people to project their own assumptions, misconceptions, and often racist ideas about what’s “exotic” and what’s “gross.”
If you’ve never eaten a certain part of an animal, or had food prepared a certain kind of way, it’s normal to react with surprise when encountering dishes that do. What’s not normal is to call these dishes -- and by extension, the cultures that prepare and consume them -- “nasty,” “weird,” or “primitive.” I ask that you monitor what I call the “colonizing reactions” of disgust or exotification that may arise within you when reading through this list. Instead, I challenge you to question your own preconceptions about what is and isn’t acceptable food.
With that out of the way, let’s get down to eating!
番茄炒鸡蛋 (stir-fried tomato and egg)
Stir-fried tomato and egg is a staple of Chinese home cooking, and is often cited as the dish that young Chinese people learn to cook for the first time. It’s simple and easy to make, comprised of three main ingredients -- tomatoes, eggs, and scallions -- which makes it a favorite dish for working parents, college students, and members of the Chinese diaspora wanting to reconnect with our roots.
Stir-fried tomato and egg is mouth-wateringly nutritious. Scrambled eggs sit in a bed of fragrant red tomatoes, soaking up their juices and delivering subtle flavor with every bite. Freshly diced green onions sprinkled on top offer a pristine pop of color and crunch. Add a pinch of sugar, a scoop of salt, and a squirt of ketchup, and you’ve got a dish that perfectly balances savory, sweet, and tangy. Stir-fried tomato and egg is delicious when served with a bowl of white rice, and paired with other offerings such as freshly steamed vegetables, fish, or braised pork ribs.
Thanks to the ubiquitous nature of this dish, stir-fried tomato and egg a perfect addition to any tavern’s breakfast, lunch, or dinner menu. You can find it in a variety of inns, ranging from the meanest digs in frontier towns to high-end restaurants in the capital. In many ways, this dish is the great equalizer. Everyone eats it, from the scarred orc in the corner of the inn to the noble on the run from their political enemies. Your players could even meet a fellow traveler on the road who’s able to stir-fry some eggs, tomatoes, and green onions with their portable cooking kit and serve them to your exhausted heroes.
Because this dish incorporates ingredients that many non-Chinese people are already familiar with, it’s a great stepping stone for incorporating foods from other cultures into your setting. Normalize the existence of this dish: the first time you introduce it, tell your players they’ve eaten this dish before, probably many times. Go around the table and ask them how they like to prepare this dish, and how the version they’re eating now stacks up to their preferred method of cooking it. After all, every Chinese person puts their own spin on this popular dish. Personally, I like to thicken the juices with a corn starch slurry, and add just a dash of soy sauce for that extra umami flavor.
火锅 (hot pot)
Hot pot is massively popular both in and outside of China, and once you’ve had a taste, you’ll understand why. Less a dish and more a way of cooking food, hot pot involves a communal pot of bubbling broth placed in the center of a table, surrounded by an assemblage of raw meats, veggies, noodles, and seafood. Diners cook the raw meats and veggies by dunking them into the boiling broth with chopsticks, then dipping them in sauce and eating them. The pot is kept hot with a portable gas or electric burner, or, in the case of many hot pot restaurants, via burners built in to specialized tables just for hot pot.
Hot pot is a communal dish. It’s the perfect way for your players to celebrate a victory, recover from a loss, or simply bond over good, hot food. A tavern could specialize in hot pot-style cooking, with an NPC server to guide your unfamiliar players through the process. The first step is picking the flavor of your soup base: 清汤 (qing tang) or clear broth, 麻辣 (ma la) or numbing-spicy, mushroom, seafood, bulette fin? Your players can also decide if they want to share the same broth or have a “split pot,” where a metal divider placed in the pot allows for two separate flavors.
Next is ordering the ingredients -- the raw meats, veggies, and noodles your players want to eat. Have fun with the options! You can include the classics, like sliced beef, napa cabbage, enoki mushrooms, and glass noodles. Or you can mix it up with your setting’s particularities: fae-touched mushrooms, mutant lobster claws, or even beholder eyestalks. Finally, ask your players to make their own dipping sauce. Standard ingredients include soy sauce, 沙茶 (sha cha) sauce, minced garlic and cilantro, and sesame oil. Again, consider infusing your sauce ingredients with signatures from your own world. The process of ordering hot pot is a great way for your players to show off their characters’ personalities.
Because hot pot is such a social meal, it’s the perfect backdrop for any number of roleplay-heavy hooks and scenes. A scheming noble invites the party to her manor for hot pot, but one of the ingredients is poisoned. A band of thieves rolls into a hot pot tavern, demanding the best meats for themselves and no one else. Two warring clans sit down to discuss a tenuous peace treaty over a shared pot of roiling broth. The possibilities are endless.
鸭舌 (duck tongue)
Yes, ducks have tongues. Yes, they’re delicious. Duck tongues are distinctively “Y” shaped, with a slender plate of bone in the middle, surrounded by rich fatty bits that melt in your mouth. Two “legs” of bony cartilage fan out from the central tongue, ending in a curly, wafer-thin tip that’s delectably crunchy, similar to a potato chip (if potato chips were savory, and also made of ducks). The texture is smooth on the outside, chewy on the inside, and the whole dish is packed full of flavor. The tongue is typically prepared with a marinade of soy sauce, rice wine, sugar, oyster sauce, and white pepper, then fried in a shallow pool of oil.
Duck tongues are a delicacy in Chinese cuisine. Not every restaurant will have them, and those that do are usually pretty fancy. This translates well to a D&D campaign. Your tavern could offer duck tongues as a regional specialty, attracting travelers from all across the realm with their unique dish. Alternatively, your players could meet a snake oil salesman promising to cure ailments, lift curses, or boost stats through this eclectic dish. You could also use duck tongues as a status symbol in your campaign. Only kings, queens, and nobles are allowed to eat the delicacy; otherwise, the dish is forbidden. What if your players ran into a duck tongue smuggler?
Of the three dishes on this list, duck tongues are perhaps the least commonly encountered by people who aren’t Chinese. As such, it is especially important to introduce this dish in a respectful and considerate manner. Don’t describe its texture or appearance as “yucky,” “foreign,” “unusual,” or “strange.” Instead, focus on the appealing aspects of this delicacy. Draw attention to the duck tongue’s rich texture, and the fact that the NPCs in your world 1) don’t find it strange at all, and 2) want it. Unless, of course, they’re vegetarian.
There are few things as powerful as a vividly described dish. When described well, and placed in the context of a larger story, food can convey mood, setting, theme, and even plot. Don’t settle for the same old turkey legs, stews, and chicken pot pies your players have always eaten. The next time they stop at a tavern, throw one of these Chinese dishes at them instead.
Just remember: it is not enough to simply add elements from other cultures into your campaigns. We must be intentional, respectful, and conscientious about how we diversify our games. My hope is that by sharing these dishes, you -- the players and GMs that comprise our community -- will broaden your ideas about what "normal" fantasy food looks, tastes, and smells like.