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A Dragon’s Banquet 6: Clams Steamed in Rice Wine

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This is a series of exerpts taken from The Life Of A Dragon to prove that gastronomy can be discreetly introduced in any story or novel, be it fiction or not!

Qusan and the Lords of Narosan, on King Marcus’ advice, had opted to pay a visit to the Blue mermaid. They were only too glad to escape from the interminable parties and ceremonies held at the Palace to accommodate an endless procession of well-wishers and diplomats. It would also provide them with some absorbing encounters with relatively more ordinary citizens, a rare pleasure practically out of their reach in their country where soldiers simply could not mingle freely with lay people.
When they reached the tavern just before dusk, big was their surprise to realize that they were not the only ones to flee the Palace.
The verandah was already crowded with regulars who knew exactly when to come and grab the favored tables. The lounge was as much congested. They were about to turn heel in disappointment, when a voice familiarly called them from the taproom:
“Lord Qusan! Come and join us over here!”
They were astonished to discover that no less than King Gerhart of Beaulieu was hailing them from his seat at a long table on trestles with a motley bunch of friends sitting on long benches. Interestingly enough, they were all men. There were not shunning the Palace only, the veteran soldier wondered. Males were the same anywhere in the world, were they not?
He recognized Wilfred, Chief Constable Petren, Ironfoot in the company of a few Dwarves, Nepomucene de Beauvoir, Lieutenant Gratien de Salle-Lavauguyon without his fiery Dwarf companion this time, and even three of those dangerous-looking Tribesmen.
Sensing their surprise, Gerhart stood up and came to them in person. He put his arm around the shoulders of the Narosan officer to steer him to their table. The Lords of the Eastern Empire were only beginning to accept the familiarity of the Alymndes denizens, but a King almost embracing Her Majesty’s General? But after all, none of them were wearing any distinctive clothes or marks of authority. Even the Narosan men had adopted a very practical garb composed of a light cloth jacket over long pants of the same material, although the different shades and patterns painted their group into a very colorful walking tableau, which had the customers pause for a better look.
Counselor Makan’ shaved pate stood in contrast with his peers who all wore their long black hair tied in a loose knot on their napes. Their feet were set in unusual sandals with a cord passing between the first two toes, giving them great freedom of movement as they walked to the table.
King Gerhart genially ordered:
“Good Gentlemen, would you be kind enough as to make room for our guests!”
As everyone scrambled to accommodate the newcomers, Gerhart had Qusan sit at his right, while the other Lords of Narosan found themselves smoothly included in various companies.
Just as everyone was settled, Jonas appeared in the company of Naeem both with large covered dishes in their hands.
Lord Qusan found himself lost for words when he realized that the Black Dragon, whose true identity he knew, was working in the kitchens of a tavern!
“Ah, good man Jonas! What succulent treat have you concocted for our delight today?” exclaimed the King of Beaulieu, effectively interrupting the General’s thoughts.

Jonas readily explained as servants were putting bowls and plates in front of the new guests.
“These are clams,” he started as he uncovered the first dish, a very large and deep one “cooked in white wine with a little pepper and chopped herbs. Try them and if you appreciate them, I will prepare a second serving!”
The servants quickly filled the bowls and all began to masticate in unison, using the shells to scoop some of the delicious broth. The Lords of Narosan, great lovers of any seafood, ate in a solemn manner, savoring their food with deliberate concentration.
The first dish, being quickly disposed of, the bowls were taken away.
Naeem opened the second dish, a shallow and wide one, on which lay rows of cut shellfish.
“Sea ears!” a common cry came out of every Narosan Lord’s mouth.
General Qusan forgot all decorum:
“Good man Jonas! Have you any idea of the value of such a delicacy in our lands? Every year, divers have to venture further and further at sea to discover this rare shellfish!”
“Well, Naeem’s friends seem to find plenty of them! We are the only place serving them, although they are commonly found on the tables of our fishermen! They are a bit of an acquired taste in spite of their popularity!
”The least I can say is that I do not mind to eat mountains of them any time, when back home we would consider ourselves lucky to be served a single slice!”
Counselor Makan had to interrupt him:
“Qusan, if you do not cease your speech, we will never be given the opportunity to relish our hosts’ food! That is unless it is your wish to punish us for an unknown demeanor!”
Everybody laughed and began to eat in earnest. But before touching their food, Qusan and his retainers were seen putting their right hand under their jackets.
Was it a prayer of some kind? Gerhart wondered.
But the same hand quickly came out holding an elongated kind of pouch, from which they extracted exquisite chopsticks of lacquered wood. By now people were used to such utensils in Alymndes, but the dexterity shown by the Narosan Lords in their handling was simply awesome. The long sticks seemed like an extension of their fingers, taking slices one by one to bring them to their mouths where they were firmly held to allow their owners to nibble at the food.
“I had better prepare a second serving of clams at the pace you are eating your food!” chortled Ekan who started towards the kitchen.
“Good man Jonas, please wait!” Qusan called.
Ekan raised a querying eyebrow, but patiently waited as the General asked something to the Lord of the House of Tsutan in quick words of their own tongue. The ever smiling Wan-Si, jumped off his bench and virtually ran out of the tavern.
While he was away, everyone returned their attention to the feast, although one could not fail to notice that the highest Commander in Narosan took on his own responsibility to keep the plate of the departed retainer filled with his share of abalone slices. No wonder Lord Qusan commanded such respectful obedience from his followers.
Lord Wan-Si came back soon enough, carrying a stoppered kind of earthenware bottle he immediately handed over to the General.
The latter stood up and asked Ekan:
“Good man Jonas, would you be kind enough to show me to your kitchen?”
The Black Dragon smiled:
“If you would care to follow me, General?”
Naeem was in the kitchen when he saw the two of them enter. He made to leave, but the Narosan Lord called him:
“Good man Naeem, could you please stay with us? It would be a great pleasure to talk matters of common interest with you!”
The request surprised Ekan’s friend, but he did not comment. If Jonas had let him into their sanctuary, there should be a good enough reason.
General Qusan addressed both of them:
“I could not help notice that your way of cooking shellfish was almost identical to that in our lands. Only the ingredients are very slightly different.”
He opened the bottle he held, picked up a goblet on one table and poured in a generous measure of a transparent liquid.
“This is rice wine. Would you mind sampling it first?” he commented, presenting the cup to Ekan who first sniffed, then took a sip. The Black Dragon turned it inside his mouth appreciatively for a while and then gulped it down. He handed the goblet to Naeem who sampled the liqueur in the same manner before venturing:
“Very tasty, indeed. A bit stronger than our wine, but a more delicate flavor. I actually like it. How about you, Jonas?”
Ekan grinned:
“I have a hunch it will taste even better after General Qusan has unveiled his recipe for our benefit!”
The staff inside the kitchen was too busy to catch the words, but they nonetheless wondered what an honored guest from a fabled land was doing in their work place.
“Shall I demonstrate first? If you like it, then you can cook a big serving as it is quick and easy to prepare!”
Naeem brought a wooden box filled with clams lying on a bed of fresh seaweed. Lord Qusan’s lifted eyebrows told him the General was impressed by the care taken in the handling of the shellfish.
Qusan grabbed a clean bowl from a nearby shelf and scooped a handful of clams into it and began to stir them around vigorously with his hand.
“If you make them dance this way long enough,” he explained, “the flesh inside the shells will detach very easily while cooking!”
After a while he asked for a pan and a lid.
He put the pan onto the fire and threw the shellfish in it and poured rice wine onto them before putting the lid over the pan.
“If I may have some chopped thin leeks, we shall add them when we uncover the lid and serve them at once!”
The cooking took only a minute, as the fire was very hot. He moved the pan away, took the lid off and added the herbs. Meanwhile, Naeem had brought some small bowls in which they served the shellfish for the three of them and Grazel, the matron of the place, who had just joined them out of curiosity. She certainly knew when a good morsel was about to come out of the two chefs’ experiments, and would not have missed it for all the gold in the world.
She closed her eyes as she masticated the shellfish. She ate them all and drank the broth. Lifting her eyes from the bowl, she met the laughing faces of the men who had observed her while eating from their own bowls.
“What do you think, Grazel?” Ekan asked.
“Forgive me for saying, but you had better run and grab all the rice wine you can put your hands on! I can foresee a revolution in Dunlago’s cooking!”
The three men chuckled in agreement.
“Which brings me back to my idea!” Qusan began. “I know personally the Narosan merchant who brought this rice wine. I could get the bottle so fast as he is staying near that covered market your King has so gracefully provided. I shall talk to him and have him keep all he has left for your sole benefit! Instead of paying him in gold, I can see and even better barter that may profit us all. We have come here for trade after all, have we not?”
“What do you have in mind we can trade for your rice wine?” Naeem asked.
“Well, it is good you are the one who asked because you will be the key! We shall leave in less than a week now. Therefore, how many sea ears, or abalones as you call them, can you get your hands on?”
“If I ask everybody around, quite a few in fact, probably enough to fill two barrels. But how can you manage to preserve them?”
“Two barrels!” Qusan exclaimed. He could barely contain his excitement. “Provide me with one barrel of salt and I shall show you how to preserve them! Once the shells and the innards are disposed of, two barrels would just be enough!”
He thought for a while.
“The only problem is how can I pay for them?”
Naeem laughed:
“That should not be any trouble! I have enough money stashed to pay for them in advance! Why do we not form a partnership with your rice wine merchant? Tell him you are our sole agent. In this way, we can keep the trade benefits within a very small circle!”
Lord Qusan held his hand forward.
“Deal!”
Naeem took it with enthusiasm.
“Deal!”
“Now, gentlemen,! Grazel interrupted, “General Qusan had better go back to the lounge, or I can imagine some very pointed questions directed at him! As for you Jonas and Naeem, you ought to start cooking if you do not want our customers raising hell!”
The matron was crafty enough to realize this small chat augured even better for future trade relations with those outlandish guests. But it was a woman’s lot to keep a lid on men’s ardor, was it not? She had the satisfaction to see her opinion clearly vindicated by the sheepish smile on the General’s face. The man went as far as granting her with a slight bow before moving towards the door.
“We certainly could do with such women back home!” a voice rang inside Ekan’s head.
“Hsu Yia!” Ekan could not hide his pleasure, even in mindspeech, upon hearing the Eastern Dragon’s words. “I doubt it would be wise to bring changes to your society so abruptly! After all, a woman is already ruling it, are you not?!”

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