My first three novels were centered on actual historical events and figures: Vlad Dracula’s Romania, Ireland at the time of Granía O’Malley, and Tombstone when the gunfight at OK Corral occurred. Menus were easy to research and I enjoyed connecting to the world of my characters through the food they knew. But what do you do in speculative fiction when history diverges into an alternative fantasy?
In Lords of Kur, Sumerian civilization never faded, but thrived and grew into a spacefaring superpower. The Sumer-Akkad empire controls mining on asteroids, moons, and planets in our solar system. Earth’s own resources have been mostly depleted, so the empire holds a monopoly over the rest of the world, which struggles to bring sanctions against it. The state religion has become a ruse in which false oracles feed insights that align with the empire’s goals. True oracles who would share the gods’ true despair over humanity are suppressed with medicated teas. The protagonist of Lords of Kur, Shalaya, is one such oracle.
Like many adventurers on the hero’s journey, her initial response to learning about her true nature is one of surprise and reluctance. Always struggling to reckon with her past, Shalaya becomes involved in a subversive revolutionary movement and feels numb while the corrupt society that raised her is shredded to reveal a primeval truth. A dark mood threads the story together, and one of the most important considerations while writing the novel was how history changed as a result of Sumer becoming an enduring force of power. If the Sumer-Akkad empire remained the world’s top force for millennia, how did it affect the development of nations and cultures we know today? In the novel, the term Hellenika is still used to describe what we know as Greece, and while it had its influence on the world, the democracy it inspired centuries later in our world never quite caught in the way it was originally envisioned.
Shalaya and her best friend, Mesilim, work together as cooks in a temple-owned café. As wards of the state (she was taken away from her family, and his family gave him up to the state to pay off debts), they can choose from a number of apprenticeship programs. Because of the empire’s draconian laws, many low-income people become the state’s ward and are essentially indentured servants. Shalaya and Mesilim find solace in cooking, and have irrepressible impulses to buck the establishment politics. While it’s intimated that Mesilim may be an oracle as well, it’s a possibility that he doesn’t explore. He finds his purpose through other means.
Shalaya and Mesilim are devoted in their friendship, but sudden twists pull their lives apart, and Shalaya finds herself with an immortal soul summoned by the gods to serve as an emissary to set the world’s balance of power right. While she knows there is something unusual about her new lover, Sargon, she doesn’t suspect his otherworldly connection. She simply thinks he’s out of her league and it’s a fling that won’t last. With her uneasy, often nervous nature, she seeks a sense of comfort in something she loves to do: improvise a meal. After spending the night at his place, she whips up a brunch featuring a shredded chicken sandwich flavored with herbs and lemon. This moment not only makes Shalaya feel more at ease, but it gives Sargon the opportunity to observe her on a rare chance when her guard is down, and he can better assess the energy that fuels her oracular powers.
Based on a number of Middle Eastern recipes I’ve collected over the years, I created my own take on the sandwich and it felt like a satisfying sense of closure in honor of the novel’s release. That scene had changed a *lot* over the years it took me to complete the novel, and I’m happy to share it out now:
Lemon-Herb Chicken Sandwiches
4 tablespoons. olive oil
1 large onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 to 1.25 lb. chicken breast
1 ½ teaspoon sumac
1 ½ teaspoon baharat, to taste
Generous pinch of Aleppo pepper
Salt and pepper to taste
Juice of one lemon
Zest of one lemon
4 pita breads, cut in half
Place chicken breasts in medium-sized saucepan and fill so it covers the meat. Boil for approximately 20 minutes, or until internal temperature of the chicken reaches 160 degrees F. drain the water and let the chicken cool. While the chicken is cooking, pour olive oil in a deep skillet and heat on low. Add onions, and cook at low temperature, stirring occasionally.
When the chicken is cool enough, either shred it or dice it. (I typically prefer shredding, but for this photo shoot, it was diced.) Add to the caramelized onions and stir in the spices and lemon zest. Drizzle the lemon juice over the skillet and mix well.
NB: Baharat is a Middle Eastern spice mix that varies by region. It’s often comprised of cumin, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg or allspice, and pepper. So if you don’t have access to baharat, it’s easy to find recipes online so you can use what you have on hand.
Recommended Album: Lisa Gerrard's The Black Opal
Serve with your favorite salad fixings, and the traditional eggplant puree, baba ganoush, is an excellent side for this!