VIII. Food and Cooking
Many years ago, the only source of many grains was from outside the Sea of Fire. Through trade and instruction from a variety of sources, some tribes have learned an adequate (albeit short-reaching) means of farming the barren lands. Additionally, the most powerful of pastoral tribes have taken to cultivating and preserving the regions around their oases to effectively create sustainable points of origin and rest between travels. Rights over these oases have been the basis of much internal strife, especially during times of significant drought, for a Tehir tribe will not seek food assistance from its neighbors or sister tribes. Instead, raiding often increases (whether the targets be of the empire or other tribes) dramatically. It is believed such dire times are the basis of the revolt (or abandonment) that led to the rise of the Shakat, or Those Who Fled.
There have been a number of benefits of raiding for sustenance and diet of the Tehir. In the years since first contact with the Turamzzyrian Empire, Tehir raiders have grown fond of some imperial foods. Turamzzyrian caravans may be selectively targeted for their food supplies. Among these, sugar is considered very special. While its use in food is sparing at best, sugar has become a common additive to tea. Most wild birds, including vultures, are largely ignored as a food source, but the feathers or quills of these and other birds may be used for decoration of clothing and ceremonial items. The Tehir believe these carrion-eaters are tainted with the spirits of their dead and will cause disease when consumed.
When it comes time to trade with another tribe for food, the male diplomat will go, typically followed by a woman. They will bring with them jewelry and fineries of their tribe along with dairy products, dyes, hides, and swords. He will trade for household goods or raw metal, while she with fabrics or hides, for vegetables and grain. Typically speaking, the ultimate goal of trade is to accumulate sufficient foodstuffs to last a small amount of time. In Tehir society, every scrap of life is used for something. Goat manure may be used to start evening fires, the hair and hide is made into clothing, and the milk and meat are eaten or stored for later production. Even the fruit of a precious squash may be carefully extracted to preserve the gourd's potentially water-holding form later on.
Hunting for food is a necessity. Among the native creatures still cultivated for food is the massive sand flea, whose innards are soaked with imported rum or brandy. Some tribes ceremonially consume the whole insect without removal of the carapace during the passages toward adulthood. For the young man, his ability to chew and swallow the entire flea without hesitation indicates his fearlessness. A young woman will not swallow the flea, but rather, take it live and whole within her mouth and try to squish it with her tongue. When the beast is dead, the wounds inflicted may be "read" by a healer or shaman for a glimpse of the upcoming woman's future. Tactics for this game are rumored, but never revealed.
There are two ways a goat is cooked: spitted and roasted, or quartered and preserved. Once the goat's hide and horns have been removed, and the goat meat has been dressed, a large stake is drawn through one side and out the other. It is placed over a large fire pit and roasted for many hours. The resulting meat is traditionally coupled with a grain-and-vegetable porridge, served either in a bowl or wrapped in doughy bread. When quartered, the ultimate intent for the meat is to be eaten another day. The by-products are divided up: stomach used for water skins; hide and hair for clothing, mats, and packs; the bones for tools and decoration; and the hooves for personal food consumption or ceremonial teacups (akin to a spoon). The meat of the quartered goat may be laid to dry and stamped with spices, resulting in poignant jerky (a prime traveling food). The intestines will be packed with shreds of boiled goat meat, heavy spices, vegetables, and millet to create a fine main dish when special guests are about. Among some women, the fat of the goat may be used to straighten and gloss their hair or to build strength for elaborate coiffures. The An-Gahrad tribe is said to make beautiful but crude instruments from their goats, whose horns are semi-curvilinear and tightly spiraled (it is best thought of as a lysard).
Eating camel meat, except during the highest of ceremonies, is considered taboo among the Tehir. The camel does not represent a means of meat for these desert-dwellers, though its sweet milk is a fine delicacy. Dairy has a special (though scant) place in their cuisine. Through marriage, southern pastoral tribes may occasionally join in partnership with the semi-sedent millet farmers near the cliffs, relying on their ability to store products for many weeks. This joint effort allows for a small production of cheese, butter, and samya (a clarified and herbed butter product), which is traded to other tribes for tea, bulgur, and other staples. A fine delicacy, the samya is produced by kneading goat's butter with various concoctions of herbs. The mixture is then cooked, salted, and strained, then poured into pots and jugs. The containers are then buried in small underground cairns for many months or even years. The samya is served over wheat dishes with seared vegetables or spread on flatbreads. It is reserved only for the finest occasions, such as weddings and any festivals held in the spring months. Gifting an entire pot of samya at the Hujuura is a blatant, but silent statement of superiority.
Millet and bulgur wheat were once the primary grains for the Tehir, though recent developments in southern agriculture have shown corn to be a potentially viable resource. Grains are typically ground into coarse flour for use in making unleavened dough for flatbread. Flatbread is eaten at nearly all meals and may be served with a spread of porridge, dried fruit, vegetable, or bean paste, olive oil, or during special occasions, samya. A regional dish unique to the Sea of Fire, couscous is usually served in combination with goat meat and dried vegetables. When in an oasis, a nomadic Tehir woman may serve the couscous stuffed within a roasted pepper.
Available chiefly around carefully cultivated oases and in the southeast, wild vegetables are a necessary but often difficult to come by item of the Tehir diet, and control over an oasis is a matter of survivability. The semi-sedent, southern tribes have made a living gathering a variety of wild vegetables, including wild potatoes and other tubers, and nuts and other legumes.
The oases of the north are known more for their spices and flavor enhancers such as anise, caraway, cassia, coriander, cumin, garlic, ginger, a variety of warm-weather mints, olives, saffron, sesame, and turmeric. Rumor holds that an elder noblewoman of each tribe protects the secrets of its valued spices, and the lesser women will have to pay her greatly for anything more than a pinch of the blend. The southwestern oases are revered for their unique selection of very hot peppers, which are often blended with garlic and other spices and served over a bland couscous. Dates, figs, limes, and palm hearts are also prized crops of the oases and give colorful variation in dishes of couscous or spread on the breakfast flatbread. A tasty morsel for Tehir children is the candied date, though caution must be taken, for eating too many sweets is said to reduce a young Tehir man's vitality. Tehir women quite enjoy dates and other sumptuous treats, but their consumption is not much regulated, for a large woman is considered an example of Tehir wealth.
It is believed the evil creatures dislike the smell of certain plants and for this reason, the Tehir dose their water. Whether or not a sulfuric smell and taste of some oases in the far eastern desert is also a factor for this tradition is purely speculation. It stands to reason however, that tea has become a foundation within the Tehir tribes. It is traded both internally and out, for a variety of staple goods including grains and vegetables. A serving of tea is typically accompanied by mint, anise, licorice, cinnamon, or nutmeg (valerian is a favored ingredient for the shaman) with a small bit of sugar to enhance the natural flavors. Some tribes have taken to adding a hint of goat's milk to further enrich the taste.
A special creation of Tehir craftsmen is the teacup. It may vary in size, material, and shape, though the overall elaborate nature of the inlaid design bespeaks its creator's skill and thus its owner's wealth. Some Imperial traders claim there are ritual instructions inscribed in these cups. If asked however, no Tehir readily admits or denies the charge.
Another beverage of recent development among the Tehir is the millet beer. Stiff and sweet, the brew is made and consumed almost exclusively by the semi-sedent agriculturists of the southern Sea of Fire. The northern tribes simply have no way of storing or moving the massive casks this brew is made in. In all tribes, this beer's consumption is heavily controlled, as the Tehir believe intoxication to be an invitation to spirit possession. Grape products are almost universally despised due to the texture of the grape skin and resulting pasty sensation in the mouth when dregs are consumed.
Salt has earned a special and vibrant place among the Tehir in recent centuries. The water in some oases within the desert has high salt content, making it unsuitable for drinking or irrigation but offering an ideal location for gathering salt. The cultivation of salt requires significant human labor to begin, as they must dig a pit deep enough to reach the water table. Natural salts in the soil or sand are caught up in the water and drawn toward the hole. The heat of the sun evaporates the water, leaving crusts suitable for harvest. The sweltering heat of the desert makes salt an integral aspect of survival, for both a Tehir and his stock. It is typically the man's role to harvest and distribute the salt, whether during trade relations or when administering to the tribe's animal herds.
The late summer harvest of salt carries with it many rituals, including the Ghashza, or Making of the Food. A pair of goats is slaughtered, their hides shorn of hair and tattooed to make decorative tunics worn for the evening dance. The meat is cured or smoked by the men, while women render the fat and combine it with honeyed millet and gathered berries, bundling it to make stout, nutrient-cakes for the year's long, arduous travel.
Smoking meat (and even the occasional fish) in small huts filled with mesquite is a common practice for those in the southwest. Mere solar drying of food in the intense, arid heat is another method of preservation utilized by the Tehir. It is the chief method by which to distribute fruits and vegetables across the vast, desert wasteland. Women are usually in charge of this task, which consists of weaving mats of palm, upon which a host of fruits and vegetables are then left uninterrupted (though guarded fiercely from animals) for three to five days. Women may take this time to bond with one another, weave additional mats for household use, or to craft their zamads. These verses may be recited quietly, late into the night and even the early morning as the women take sleepless shifts to guard over the precious food.
The Tehir breakfast is typically quite sparse, including a mere serving of flatbread, paired with a cup of tea. It is believed the sun is at its weakest during this time, so the need to solidify the body with nutrients is not nearly as important until after noon. Incidentally, the morning is when the pastoral nomads are most busy, as they tend their flocks or migrate between oases before the heat is unbearable.
A typical lunch may include a heavy serving of tea, served with jerked goat meat and dried vegetables wrapped in a pliable flatbread.
The basis for an early-evening porridge is often the slaggy leftovers from lunch's tea, combined with dried and cured mixtures of vegetables and meat. As such, the porridge is quite salty, though surprisingly tasty with a whole host of underlying herbal flavors. As available, it is finished by sweet creamy goat or camel milk.