Originally, the nomads roaming the desert lands of Zayal relied heavily on a diet of dates, with little variety, save the occasional, expensive camel or goat, with a heavy emphasis on yogurt products, such as leben (yogurt without butterfat). However, Zayal has long been a center of trade, and with the merchants' wanderings came a wide array of various imported food items and methods of cooking. As the indigenous peoples of the desert wandered, so did their tastes and favored ingredients.
Modern Zay'ali Cuisine
Zay'ali cuisine today is the result of a combination of richly diverse cuisines, incorporating the cuisine of the Empire, Thendrani cooking, and many items not indigenous to the desert, which were imported on the dhows and caravans. There is a strong emphasis on the following items in Zay'ali cuisine: lamb, yogurt, mint, thyme (often in a mix called za'atar), the inescapable tea (one of the few products exported from the Wastes), saffron, garlic, korelht (a turmeric-like spice), oret (a cinnamon-like spice that is in large quantities, also used as a poison), rice (the staple), and, in the north near rare streams and rivers, fish. In addition, the cuisine is heavily dosed with anything hot, from hot sauces to every variety of pepper, to tea drank the hotter the better. This cuisine also favors vegetables such as cucumbers, eggplants, and onions, and fruits (primarily citrus), and often used as seasonings for entrees.
Cultural Traditions and Outlook
Essential to any cooking in Zayal is the concept of hospitality. One example is the tradition of the salt bond. Another is that meals are generally large family affairs, with much sharing and a great deal of warmth over the dinnertable. Formal dinners and celebrations generally entail large quantities of lamb, and every occasion entails large quantities of tea.
In an average tribal household, a visitor might expect a dinner consisting of a very large platter, shared commonly, with a vast mountain of rice, incorporating lamb or chicken, or both, as separate dishes, with various stewed vegetables, heavily spiced, sometimes with a light sauce. Most likely, there would be several other items on the side, less hearty. Tea would certainly accompany the meal, as it is almost constantly consumed. Coffee would be included as well. This is thick black coffee, served in small, demitasse-like cups and is often infused with a sweet spice such as cardamom or cloves.
A Zay'ali traveler who visited Imperial lands or the Southern Kingdoms may be shocked at the use of oret in sweets. In Zayal, oret is most widely used as a seasoning for meats. Zay'ali, however, have other desserts. Variations of rice pudding and fried dough are abundant in recipes enjoyed throughout the land. Ground nut mixtures are common fillings for such treats. Saffron is used in everything, from sweets, to rice, to beverages. Fruit juices are quite popular in this often arid region.