Based on the approximately four hundred hours of Next Food Network Star that I have seen, I gather that it’s hard to properly describe food to someone who can’t actually taste it. This apparently isn’t a problem for George R.R. Martin, who inserts long and varied food descriptions everywhere in A Song of Ice and Fire. These are the best ones.
Fair warning, some of these things might include some spoilers. They’re all past the point where they really would be, but proceed at your own risk.
While a lot of this list is Martin describing delicious food, “best” here also encompasses diversity of good food—not everything is the sumptuous feasts of the rich and powerful—and important to world-building or character growth, even when the actual foods are distinctly unappetizing.
Speaking of that...
In the Bottom there were pot shops along the alleys where huge tubs of stew had been simmering for years, and you could trade half your bird for a heel of yesterday’s bread and a “bowl o’ brown,” and they’d even stick the other half in the fire and crisp it up for you, as long as you plucked the feathers yourself.
A Game of Thrones, Chapter 55
“Bowl o’ brown” is such a wonderful phrase. It’s funny in the way that it always is when food is basically unidentifiable. (“What is that?” “It appears to be a big bowl of... brown.”) And its description tells you so much about the poverty of the area. Its real-world historical equivalent is pottage, but “bowl o’ brown” is much more fun to say.
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. Sansa had never eaten snails before; Joffrey showed her how to get the snail out of the shell, and fed her the first sweet morsel himself. Then came trout fresh from the river, baked in clay; her prince helped her crack open the hard casing to expose the flaky white flesh within. And when the meat course was brought out, he served her himself, slicing a queen’s portion from the joint, smiling as he laid it on her plate. She could see from the way he moved that his right arm was still troubling him, yet he uttered not a word of complaint.
Later came sweetbreads and pigeon pie and baked apples fragrant with cinnamon and lemon cakes frosted in sugar, but by then Sansa was so stuffed that she could not manage more than two little lemon cakes, as much as she loved them. She was wondering whether she might attempt a third when the king began to shout.
King Robert had grown louder with each course. From time to time Sansa could hear him laughing or roaring a command over the music and the clangor of plates and cutlery, but they were too far away for her to make out his words.
A Game of Thrones, Chapter 29
Look, if you’re not hungry after reading that, I would like a piece of your self-restraint. Plus, there’s Sansa’s POV of the worldly Joffrey helping her eat delicacies and the symbolism of “queen’s portion” and her being too full but wanting more of something not healthy that, basically, make me feel like I’m writing a high school English essay. Sansa’s present at a lot of meals where the Lannisters lay some form of siege to her. Compare this to chapter 60 of Clash of Kings.
Cersei set a tasty table, that could not be denied. They started with a creamy chestnut soup, crusty hot bread, and greens dressed with apples and pine nuts. Then came lamprey pie, honeyed ham, buttered carrots, white beans and bacon, and roast swan stuffed with mushrooms and oysters. Tyrion was exceedingly courteous; he offered his sister the choice portions of every dish, and made certain he ate only what she did. Not that he truly thought she’d poison him, but it never hurt to be careful.
A Clash of Kings, Chapter 54
Delicious food with a side order of being worried your sister might have you poisoned. Lots of decadence that can’t even be enjoyed and Tyrion’s actions get about as many words as Cersei’s table.
Part of her wanted to be a swan. The other part wanted to eat one. She had broken her fast on some acorn paste and a handful of bugs. Bugs weren’t so bad when you got used to them. Worms were worse, but still not as bad as the pain in your belly after days without food. Finding bugs was easy, all you had to do was kick over a rock. Arya had eaten a bug once when she was little, just to make Sansa screech, so she hadn’t been afraid to eat another. Weasel wasn’t either, but Hot Pie retched up the beetle he tried to swallow, and Lommy and Gendry wouldn’t even try. Yesterday Gendry had caught a frog and shared it with Lommy, and, a few days before, Hot Pie had found blackberries and stripped the bush bare, but mostly they had been living on water and acorns. Kurz had told them how to use rocks and make a kind of acorn paste. It tasted awful.
A Clash of Kings, Chapter 19
This isn’t even the most disgusting eating described in A Song of Ice and Fire, but it’s so long, so involved, and so disgusting—far above what’s necessary to get across how hard survival is—that it gets a special place on this list. There’s also an implication that acorn paste is somehow even worse than the bugs, which is hard to believe. It makes sense, too. Acorns are rarely anyone’s first choice of nut.
A short man stood in an arched doorway grilling chunks of snake over a brazier, turning them with wooden tongs as they crisped. The pungent smell of his sauces brought tears to the knight’s eyes. The best snake sauce had a drop of venom in it, he had heard, along with mustard seeds and dragon peppers. Myrcella had taken to Dornish food as quick as she had to her Dornish prince, and from time to time Ser Arys would try a dish or two to please her. The food seared his mouth and made him gasp for wine, and burned even worse coming out than it did going in. His little princess loved it, though.
A Feast for Crows, Chapter 13
You cannot tell me snake sauce doesn’t intrigue. The little character insight elevates this above simply learning about Dorne. A lot of Dornish food we hear about isn’t too outlandish, so this gets a special mention. It’s this and the famous Dornish peppers that form the most distinctive parts of Dornish cuisine. And both will blow your mouth off.
Catelyn could not fault him for his lack of appetite. The wedding feast began with a thin leek soup, followed by a salad of green beans, onions, and beets, river pike poached in almond milk, mounds of mashed turnips that were cold before they reached the table, jellied calves’ brains, and a leche of stringy beef. It was poor fare to set before a king, and the calves’ brains turned Catelyn’s stomach. Yet Robb ate it uncomplaining, and her brother was too caught up with his bride to pay much attention.
A Storm of Swords, Chapter 51
A typical Martin list of food with, in hindsight, the realization of why the fare isn’t as sumptuous as it should be. And why so few of the guests were able to find their appetite. Fun fact, a leg of mutton makes a makeshift weapon in the melee that follows.
“Bring us some hot wine, if you would. The night is chilly.”
“Yes, my lord.” Jon built a cookfire, claimed a small cask of Mormont’s favorite robust red from stores, and poured it into a kettle. He hung the kettle above the flames while he gathered the rest of his ingredients. The Old Bear was particular about his hot spiced wine. So much cinnamon and so much nutmeg and so much honey, not a drop more. Raisins and nuts and dried berries, but no lemon, that was the rankest sort of southron heresy—which was queer, since he always took lemon in his morning beer. The drink must be hot to warm a man properly, the Lord Commander insisted, but the wine must never be allowed to come to a boil. Jon kept a careful eye on the kettle.
A Clash of Kings, Chapter 34
This is a sign of a diseased mind. Or possibly a hipster who will corner you at a holiday party and explain, in horrible detail, why his recipe is superior to the one on offer. It doesn’t matter that you didn’t ask.
The beer was brown, the bread black, the stew a creamy white. She served it in a trencher hollowed out of a stale loaf. It was thick with leeks, carrots, barley, and turnips white and yellow, along with clams and chunks of cod and crabmeat, swimming in a stock of heavy cream and butter. It was the sort of stew that warmed a man right down to his bones, just the thing for a wet, cold night. Davos spooned it up gratefully.
“You have tasted sister’s stew before?”
“I have, my lord.” The same stew was served all over the Three Sisters, in every inn and tavern.
“This is better than what you’ve had before. Gella makes it. My daughter’s daughter. Are you married, onion knight?”
“I am, my lord.”
“A pity. Gella’s not. Homely women make the best wives. There’s three kinds of crabs in there. Red crabs and spider crabs and conquerors. I won’t eat spider crab, except in sister’s stew. Makes me feel half a cannibal.” His lordship gestured at the banner hanging above the cold black hearth. A spider crab was embroidered there, white on a grey-green field.
A Dance With Dragons, Chapter 9
Stew is a course in a shocking number of meals Martin describes, but, you know, Winter Is Coming and Stew Is Warm. But you’ve got to hand it to Gella—she makes a stew that makes a man willing to eat his house’s sigil. This stew is also pretty much a recipe—the main ingredients are named, you could absolutely improvise based on what’s named here. Granted, it’s roughly a billion degrees out right now, so maybe wait until winter to try. Southern hemisphere, you go ahead and report back.
After the broth came a salad of apples, nuts, and raisins. At any other time, it might have made a tasty dish, but tonight all the food was flavored with fear.
[...] Crabclaw pies followed the salad. Then came mutton roasted with leeks and carrots, served in trenchers of hollowed bread. Lollys ate too fast, got sick, and retched all over herself and her sister. Lord Gyles coughed, drank, coughed, drank, and passed out.
[...] The last course was goat cheese served with baked apples. The scent of cinnamon filled the hall
Clash of Kings, Chapter 60
I’m beginning to feel like sharing a meal with Cersei is about as safe as wandering out north of the Wall in only your underwear. Pretty much every delicious course described in this chapter is accompanied by something nerve-wracking. The end of this chapter has Cersei making Sansa chug a cup of wine for courage and then saying she means to have them killed rather than captured, so no amount of cinnamon-filled halls is going to make anyone feel better.
That night, Three-Finger Hobb cooked the boys a special meal to mark the occasion. When Jon arrived at the common hall, the Lord Steward himself led him to the bench near the fire. The older men clapped him on the arm in passing. The eight soon-to-be brothers feasted on rack of lamb baked in a crust of garlic and herbs, garnished with sprigs of mint, and surrounded by mashed yellow turnips swimming in butter. “From the Lord Commander’s own table,” Bowen Marsh told them. There were salads of spinach and chickpeas and turnip greens, and afterward bowls of iced blueberries and sweet cream.
A Game of Thrones, Chapter 41
There are three important meals for Jon Snow in A Game of Thrones. The first is at Winterfell, where Jon feeds honeyed chicken to Ghost. Ghost is there because Jon, as an assumed bastard, isn’t important enough to sit up with the rest of his family. They had to leave their dogs outside for politeness. Jon’s very cut off from his family at that meal and he doesn’t really describe the food.
The meal quoted above is a sign of the brotherhood and acceptance he finds in the Night’s Watch—where the Lord Commander of this place shares food with them. And then there’s a third meal where Jon is given an extra portion of stew out of sympathy. Yes, so much symbolism in food.
Forced to live off the land, Yoren turned to Koss and Kurz, who’d been taken as poachers. He would send them ahead of the column, into the woods, and come dusk they would be back with a deer slung between them on a pole or a brace of quail swinging from their belts. The younger boys would be set to picking blackberries along the road, or climbing fences to fill a sack with apples if they happened upon an orchard.
Arya was a skilled climber and a fast picker, and she liked to go off by herself. One day she came across a rabbit, purely by happenstance. It was brown and fat, with long ears and a twitchy nose. Rabbits ran faster than cats, but they couldn’t climb trees half so well. She whacked it with her stick and grabbed it by its ears, and Yoren stewed it with some mushrooms and wild onions. Arya was given a whole leg, since it was her rabbit. She shared it with Gendry. The rest of them each got a spoonful, even the three in manacles. Jaqen H’ghar thanked her politely for the treat, and Biter licked the grease off his dirty fingers with a blissful look, but Rorge, the noseless one, only laughed and said, “There’s a hunter now. Lumpyface Lumpyhead Rabbitkiller.” Outside a holdfast called Briarwhite, some fieldhands surrounded.
[...]They roasted the sweetcorn in the husk that night, turning the ears with long forked sticks, and ate it hot right off the cob. Arya thought it tasted wonderful, but Yoren was too angry to eat.
A Clash of Kings, Chapter 9
This is all about the ability to feed yourself without a cook or a store. The people worth things can bring in food from their surroundings. Arya proves she’s almost a natural at it. Plus the description of the corn, simple as it is, is mouthwatering.
They gorged themselves on horseflesh roasted with honey and peppers, drank themselves blind on fermented mare’s milk and Illyrio’s fine wines, and spat jests at each other across the fires, their voices harsh and alien in Dany’s ears
[...] Food was brought to her, steaming joints of meat and thick black sausages and Dothraki blood pies, and later fruits and sweetgrass stews and delicate pastries from the kitchens of Pentos, but she waved it all away. Her stomach was a roil, and she knew she could keep none of it down.
A Game of Thrones, Chapter 11
This one serves two purposes: 1) the food, drink, and way the Dothraki celebrate tells us a bit more about them as a group, and 2) Dany’s lack of hunger even when faced with “delicate pastries” reinforces how she feels. Martin uses people’s reaction to food a lot to show state of mind.
“As you wish. Let us eat.” Illyrio clapped his hands together, and serving men came running.
They began with a broth of crab and monkfish, and cold egg lime soup as well. Then came quails in honey, a saddle of lamb, goose livers drowned in wine, buttered parsnips, and suckling pig. The sight of it all made Tyrion feel queasy, but he forced himself to try a spoon of soup for the sake of politeness, and once he had tasted it he was lost. The cooks might be old and fat, but they knew their business. He had never eaten so well, even at court.
[...] Magister Ordello was poisoned by a mushroom not half a year ago. The pain is not so much, I am told. Some cramping in the gut, a sudden ache behind the eyes, and it is done. Better a mushroom than a sword through your neck, is it not so? Why die with the taste of blood in your mouth when it could be butter and garlic?”
The dwarf studied the dish before him. The smell of garlic and butter had his mouth watering. Some part of him wanted those mushrooms, even knowing what they were. He was not brave enough to take cold steel to his own belly, but a bite of mushroom would not be so hard. That frightened him more than he could say. “You mistake me,” he heard himself say.
A Dance with Dragons, Chapter 1
A list, as usual, of things that sound pretty good. But the key here is how Tyrion thinks it’s the best food he’s ever had. This is the guy whose first act as Hand of the King was to hire the best cook in King’s Landing, and the food Illyrio serves him is still better. To be fair, by this point Tyrion’s had a rough time of it, but he knows his food.
How good does this food look? He’s tempted even when he thinks the mushrooms will kill him.
The food was plain, but very good; there were loaves of crusty bread still warm from the ovens, crocks of fresh-churned butter, honey from the septry’s hives, and a thick stew of crabs, mussels, and at least three different kinds of fish. Septon Meribald and Ser Hyle drank the mead the brothers made, and pronounced it excellent, whilst she and Podrick contented themselves with more sweet cider.
A Feast for Crows, Chapter 31
There’s a lot of over-the-top food in A Song of Ice and Fire because rich people in every universe show they are rich by eating a bevy of expensive, weird things that no regular person could ever afford and that we all, deep down, suspect don’t taste great. The food of Quiet Isle is as simple and good, like the people there, and it all sounds like something you could probably get right now.
The first dish was a creamy soup of mushrooms and buttered snails, served in gilded bowls. Tyrion had scarcely touched the breakfast, and the wine had already gone.
[...] He called for more wine. By the time he got it, the second course was being served, a pastry coffyn filled with pork, pine nuts, and eggs. Sansa ate no more than a bite of hers, as the heralds were summoning the first of the seven singers.
[...] Tyrion listened with half a ear, as he sampled sweetcorn fritters and hot oatbread baked with bits of date, apple, and orange, and gnawed on the rib of a wild boar.
[...] Their feats were accompanied by crabs boiled in fiery eastern spices, trenchers filled with chunks of chopped mutton stewed in almond milk with carrots, raisins, and onions, and fish tarts fresh from the ovens, served so hot they burned the fingers.
[...] Tyrion suffered through it with a double helping of honey-ginger partridge and several cups of wine. A haunting ballad of two dying lovers amidst the Doom of Valyria might have pleased the hall more if Collio had not sung it in High Valyrian, which most of the guests could not speak. But “Bessa the Barmaid” won them back with its ribald lyrics. Peacocks were served in their plumage, roasted whole and stuffed with dates
[...] Four master pyromancers conjured up beasts of living flame to tear at each other with fiery claws whilst the serving men ladeled out bowls of blandissory, a mixture of beef broth and boiled wine sweetened with honey and dotted with blanched almonds and chunks of capon. Then came some strolling pipers and clever dogs and sword swallowers, with buttered pease, chopped nuts, and slivers of swan poached in a sauce of saffron and peaches.
[...] A juggler kept a half-dozen swords and axes whirling through the air as skewers of blood sausage were brought sizzling to the tables
[...] Tyrion was toying with a leche of brawn, spiced with cinnamon, cloves, sugar, and almond milk, when King Joffrey lurched suddenly to his feet.
A Storm of Swords, Chapter 60
I am so hungry. I don’t care if the pie is poisoned.
Additional reporting by Zachariah Ezer