Thursday, July 12, 2012


Practically every area of the world has come up with its own method of putting food inside bread. There is the sandwich. The pasty. The pie. The calzone. From Froongia, we have smooshi and sashaymi, layered stacks and intricate little slices like edible millefiori wrapped in rice and seaweed; from the Great Shwamp, the gleaming boiled spheres called gulashlub; from Banterkrat, a hundred varieties of intricately folded flatbreads, like origami with food baked inside. If one prefers desserts, there is the cream bun, the eclair, the jambritch, the crepe, the scone, the krifle, the cannoli, the tanchee, the rangoon, the pillidesh. I have yet to find a place without its own variety of food-in-a-crust.

Wherever you go, the purpose is much the same. Everyone wants food they can carry around, food that won't dry out or get squashed or make their fingers sticky. The best way is usually to wrap it in some sort of crust and turn it into its own little self-contained object.

The Golden Desert's version is the pakal.

Pakals are collections of food wrapped in dough and baked, or fried, or occasionally boiled. They are the shape of rounded river pebbles. The crusts are hard on the outside, making a beautiful bready thump when you tap them. They can contain virtually any food that exists in the Desert. Meat, cheese, cabbage, chocolate, fish, fruit, an endless variety of vegetables and spices - if it's edible, you will find it in a pakal sooner or later. They come in practically every imaginable size as well, from tiny ones the size of marbles (popular among children and the Desert's rodent populations) to the steaming, house-sized pastries baked for certain festivals.*

Of course, it's impossible to tell from the outside what is inside a pakal. As a result, it's traditional to punch patterns into the outer crust before baking, like the holes in a pie. The holes let out steam and keep the pakal from exploding when baked. The pattern they form tells you what's inside. Market-goers in the Desert learn to read the crusts as they go. Little fish symbols mean fish of some sort, usually some species from the river Lahra. Triangles mean cabbage. Diamonds mean chocolate. Meat pakals usually have a simple picture of the animal on the top, unless the baker wasn't quite sure what it was, in which case they just have a star instead.

Some pakals are left unmarked, for the adventurous eater.

I have been largely living on these little pastries, in addition to my usual diet of meat and vegetables and chocolate and whatever else happens to be available. (The Golden Desert is sadly lacking in slug meat, but it makes up for it with its wide variety of tasty hoofed animals and edible cacti.) Pakals are common, varied, and cheap, and they travel well. It's what they were made for, after all. Though many modern pakals are essentially pies, juicy pastries of meat or sand-apple, they were originally a way to make dried meat and vegetables last longer and require less packaging on long Desert voyages. In less civilized centuries, some of the more warlike Desert tribes would skewer pakals on their spears, so that they could snack on horseback while fighting each other.

There has been no war in the Golden Desert since the Locust Marauders died out, but it's still easy to find tough, salted pakals baked for long trips. In the dry Desert air, they last nearly forever.

I have always had a kind of magpie attraction to small, beautifully made things.** Pakals are no exception. It is nearly as much fun to collect the little patterned loaves as it is to eat them. I love nearly all food, but there is something special about these compact little gems of the baker's craft.

If they weren't so tasty, it would almost seem a shame to eat them.

* Some of these giant pastries have gone on to become permanent homes. I met a woman in Hemrikath who lived inside one of the empty crusts. It had been emptied of its filling long ago, and larger holes had been cut for windows and a wooden door. I asked her if she ever got the urge to gnaw on the walls. She said no; the old bread had gone stale years ago and was roughly the consistency of granite. The smell of its contents still lingered, though, however faint, and she occasionally woke up from blissful dreams of figs and cinnamon.

** As a traveler with no permanent home, I have to be wary of this tendency, lest I end up as ridiculously overburdened as Elva Ursunorn's fabled Packrat. Though the world is full of beautiful things, I have trained myself to keep only the miniature and the edible ones. People often ask why I have so many random small objects hanging around my neck.

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