*Internal excitement intensifies* Season 5 of the Expanse is out, and with it, a renewed excitement about the food explored in the series. I’ve been so excited, in fact, that my poor brain has been working over time yet again this season and has been choosing to switch on at 3am to ponder the problem of nutrition in space. Because I’m a nerd and totally fine with that.
Omfg, here she goes with the bold subheadings. Yep. Strap in, folks, I have time on my hands and am willing to go full nerd while espousing my lack of knowledge on the Internets.
About The Expanse
If you have no idea what I’m talking about, the Leviathan Wakes books by James S.A. Corey and accompanying television show – The Expanse – is a massive (9 book and thus far 5 season) Sci-Fi series dealing with politics, inequality, humanity’s spread throughout the solar system, war, profit, cabals, and external forces. In broad, non-spoilery terms at least. There’s So. Much. More.
The world building is phenomenal, and the attention to scientific detail (I mean c’mon … the show had me at the opening dealing with gravity) gives just enough meat for the non-scientific at least to run with. It’s like two of my other Sci-Fi loves – Battlestar Galactica and The Martian had a huge baby.
This explanation isn’t doing either series any justice at all. Suffice it to say that it’s great and I would be shocked to hear that it isn’t being used as a teaching tool in at least some discipline of college course.
Food is a big part of the books (at least it’s mentioned frequently and is used to convey information about the characters, location and politics), and I’m super fascinated in what the food of this world tastes like.
What the food is made of, what the flavor profiles are … who are these people, and what do they like? They aren’t (all) subsisting on military-style MREs, but they’re in space … so lobster is probably right out. Where did these people come from on Earth? They’re not all North American in ancestry – the UN runs things at least ostensibly; not necessarily the US (although it is an American series written in English, so there’s definitely a sense that at least geographically a lot of the Earth references are from there, if not political power as well).
Before I get too lost in the Food Nerd weeds, today’s recipe is one I’ve been mulling over since I first read the books. Quite a few mentions have been made of noodles with mushrooms or noodles with black sauce – or both. In my mind, given the fact that the Outer Belt is populated heavily by people of broad Asian descent, black sauce brings to mind Korean-Chinese Jajangmyeon (fermented black bean sauce), which is the absolute bomb but which I can’t source the ingredients for easily.
Reddit seems to agree with that assessment, and mention is made of hoisin sauce possibly being a substitute flavor profile.
I tend to lean toward a vegan analog for butter taste mixed with a bit of grease like takeout Chinese noodles have, mixed with delicate mushrooms, black vinegar and a bit of hoisin or oyster sauce mixed in. With garlic powder. Spices are a thing, and I refuse to believe that humanity has abandoned garlic.
Personally, I would add something green like bok choy or something with some nutrition, but food is political in this world, and fresh veggies would be hard to find, I imagine. This is poor people food – and the poor in this society don’t even have free and clear access to adequate oxygen, let alone stable food supply lines and proper nutrition. No veggies for me. (Mostly) shelf stable, it is.
Back to non directly recipe-related Nerdery.
Egg Noodles & Space Chickens
In the books, reference to egg noodles is made (specifically in Leviathan Wakes, Miller stops at a noodle cart for a cheap cone of egg noodles in black sauce). Egg is also referenced elsewhere in the books, though of course I can’t put my finger on the exact book or framework for that reference – I believe mention was made of a “real” breakfast sounding like it most likely featured meat and some sort of ship eggs – which may or may not have been vegan eggs.
Quite understandably, real meat from an animal is expensive in this world – and I would imagine not only expensive, but super rare for those in the Outer Belt far away from Earth. As far as I can figure, Earth would be the only place with enough land and resources to support any sort of large scale animal farming – or farming of any animals larger than rabbit (I don’t believe, however, that mention is made of rabbit).
Mention is made of vat grown meat, and farmed salmon for sushi – which makes sense mostly, though that’s a lot of water.
But chickens? Yeah, you can have chickens on a balcony in a city and still get eggs, but to have enough chickens to make enough eggs that egg noodles can then be sold cheaply to Belters – that’s a lot of feed, which requires a lot of water, and unless your chickens are running around the ship loose, a lot of dedicated chicken space. Which wouldn’t be wasted – chicken poop makes good fertilizer.
But still … I can see it being a viable protein source somewhere like Ganymede where large scale farming is being conducted, and I suppose big stations like Tycho must have some sort of food production capacity, but you’ve got to have a bunch of chickens to get a stable breeding population – and roosters – to be able to manage all that. Or, would it be more cost-effective to cycle your chickens into stew every 4 years or so when they stop laying to start fresh with a new crop?
How quick are ship times? Can you sell chicken poop for a profit?
I don’t know. If you have more information on this or see big holes in my logic, even if it’s years from now and we are on Season 9 (fingers crossed), let me know in the comments. I’m super interested in this stuff and know next to nothing about it.
For the purposes of this recipe, I’m not sold on egg noodles – despite them being mentioned in the book. I’m leaning toward rice noodles or shiritaki noodles being more plentiful (though shiritaki probably don’t have enough calories to be a viable nutrition source).
Is wheat a thing in this world? I don’t remember seeing any reference to fresh bread – and I can imagine, at least for our Earther protagonist from Montana, that would be a big comfort smell. Like coffee, which is definitely still a thing in this world, even in the Outer Belt (though coffee can be made from a plethora of things – and is definitely used as a plot device to show wealth and power).
Still. I don’t think bread has been mentioned, so what are these egg noodles made out of? Eggs & rice? Keto-style egg ribbons? JUST eggs?
Water in Space
Water. Water is expensive and has been a limiting factor to how large societies can grow since humans decided to clump together. It stands to reason that this continues on into the great beyond, and access to water is one of the tools of subjugation used to keep the Outer Belt under control by the Inner Planets.
This world also mines water off of space rocks and shuttles it around – so I’m thinking this restriction is more political than practical. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe rice takes more water to grow than soybeans. According to a January 2013 report published by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, it takes 2,497 liters of water to produce 1kg of rice, but only 1,849 liters of water to produce the same amount of dry pasta (I’m assuming regular wheat pasta) and 196 liters of water for 1 egg. So. If they have enough water for rice, which is also referenced in the book (specifically rice noodles with mushrooms in Babylon’s Ashes), maybe chickens *are* more widespread.
This article from FAO.org details water consumption due to environment and growing cycle, and has soybeans listed as needing 450-700mm of water during the growing period. Rice needs the same amount; wheat needs 450-650mm.
I would imagine that any space set up for farming can be kept at a consistent perfect growing environment – you can have a room set up like South Carolina or Vietnam to grow rice in, right next to the Ohio room growing wheat and soybeans. That makes sense. Still takes a lot of space to produce enough food to feed people, but that’s also a gripe The Belt has about The Inners – access to food.
I had assumed wheat takes too much space and dirt to grow at a functioning agrarian capacity – but maybe that chicken poop (and human poop) helps there? I would imagine compost would be necessary as well. (Although .. what else do you have to compost but poop? I can’t see single-use items being popular aside from recycled paper, and how much nutrition is supplied by vegetables vs some sort of vitamin? I can easily see food food being necessary as a caloric supplement rather than nutritional necessity – ooh. Snowpiercer did a good-but-terrifying job here).
Veganism in space
I still assume that most people living full time in the Outer Belt are at least mostly accidental vegans. Cheese is mentioned in the books, but as a rare delicacy and symbol of the “fat cats” on Earth. I think Earth is the only place with cows and dairy. I don’t think there are Martian cows in this world.
Salmon is mentioned for sushi, but not as something people we know are actually eating – as is vat meat (I still think this could be something like Beyond Burgers instead of actual muscle tissue; but who knows? It’s scientifically possible even now, and we have yet to crawl out of our gravity well in any long-term manner).
I stand by the accidental vegan. Maybe with eggs. Or are they vegan eggs and no one thinks to mention otherwise because chicken is space suits is a stupid question?
Also going out on a limb here and saying honey isn’t really available – I can’t imagine that if Earth has enough people it needs to send some out to colonize, we’ve gotten our ish together regarding bees. Which opens up a whole other deal regarding vegetables and extinction …. but that’s too far of a digression for today.
These are the questions that keep me up at night.
Other Belter Foods If You’ve Read This Far And Are Still Curious
If you’re curious about other Belter food, I also recreated Red Kibble – which was also delicious – and have a whole long dive into cultural influences of flavor on that recipe.
Less successful was my foray into Indo-Chinese Singapore-style noodles, which I did not bother posting but really need to revisit. Also: adding Greek flavors into that mix would be fascinating.
And if I can figure out better TVP sourcing, I’d like to attempt White Kibble as well. I don’t think what I have in my head (Southern style white gravy) is what it would actually taste like.
—-End Nerdy rant and on to the actual recipe—
Today’s recipe is: gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan
Belter Style Black Sauce Mushroom Noodles
1 serving rice noodles (I chose to go with wide noodles, because I wanted something with a touch of bounce. I think texture would be a big thing in this world. I’ve seen other versions using Udon – and egg noodles are mentioned in the book)
1 package Enoki mushrooms (I wanted a delicate mushroom here – one I could see easily taking the place of noodle bulk when noodles are scarce. Something meatier like a portobello or Shiitaki minced would also do – if you use the whole package for 1 person, that’s probably a bit on the baller side for this dish – but it was delicious and I have no ragrets)
2 tsp. ghee or vegan butter (This is possibly a stretch for this world, but butter & mushrooms … ghee is probably not a thing, but vegan butter or some sort of butter analog very well may be – at least on the Stations – I have ghee, so I’m going with that rather than butter butter)
2 tsp. oil (most likely peanut or some other high smoke point neutral oil – I’m using safflower oil, since that is what I have on hand)
1 Tbsp. black vinegar (a fermented vinegar popular in Chinese cooking)
1 Tbsp. Hoisin [also popular in Chinese cooking and I can’t see why some version of this wouldn’t be available. If not, a little oyster sauce + a slack sprinkle of sweetener (but probably not cane sugar) would do well here – or, if you, like me, think you have those sauces but do not – a teaspoon of ketjap manis (sweet soy) + 2 tsp. Bulldog (Japanese Worcestershire) work really well]
Garlic (I wanted to use crispy fried garlic discs so badly in this dish, but while I think garlic is probably available, I think it’s more likely that a cheap & cheerful hawker stall would be using garlic powder – maybe in one of the bars or somewhere with internal seating would have real garlic. I’m going for street stall-ish here, you do you)
Optional toppers: Green onions (maybe not in the street stall version, but I need some bright freshness in my life), and topper condiments like more black vinegar, some soy sauce and chili oil. I’ve got to believe that future hawker stalls will have the customization options available in NYC Chinatown’s dollar dumpling shops
A hand full of chicken analog TVP (probably a little flash for a street stall, but if we are conceding that TVP chunks exist for Belter Kibble – which is also a food of the oppressed – strips also probably exist and are at least mostly readily available. The cost of the mushrooms may balance the cost of the TVP out for a hawker stall version of these noodles, though)
If you’re using TVP, prepare according to package directions. I did not, but only because I could not be bothered to boil them for 8 minutes. I would imagine these would be an easy keep-on-hand prepped item for a hawker stall.
Boil your noodles until almost cooked through and drain.
Assemble the rest of your ingredients, and fire your largest pan up to medium-high – this will go quick.
Add the oil and heat to shimmering. Toss in the mushrooms and TVP if you’re using, and let cook, stirring frequently, until the mushrooms get a bit of color.
Sprinkle liberally with garlic powder, add a Tablespoon of Hoisin (or your other sauces), and a Tablespoon of vinegar.
Add the noodles and butter analog and toss quickly to combine.
Continue stir-frying until well combined.
Serve topped with sliced green onions if using.
Serves 1 for a full meal, or 2 for a snack