Cooking with Ursula K. Le Guin


Eat Your Words


As a not-quite-heterosexual high-school girl, I considered the grand science-fiction gender experiment in The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin (1929–2018), one of my formative love stories. The book was published in 1969 and won Hugo and Nebula awards, but it was still radical when I devoured it in the eighties and is still radical today. It tells the story of Genly Ai, a human-diaspora interstellar explorer who arrives solo on the planet Winter to convince its citizens to join the Ekumen, a benevolent interplanetary federation. Ai is a human man, but the humanoid people on Winter have no gender and instead go once a month into a kind of estrus called kemmer, in which their bodies are spontaneously inspired to become either male or female, for the purpose of sex. (Sounds fun … right?) As a person who is always a “man,” Ai is considered a pervert on Winter, but in their society—unlike ours—this isn’t a very big deal. More central is how Ai grapples with his relationships with the local people, in particular a government minister named Estraven, who may be an ally or an enemy or a friend … or more than a friend if Ai can expand his categories.


Hot beer: the drink of choice for the maybe-lovers Estraven and Ai.


Le Guin said that she wrote her science fictions as thought experiments, skewing our world in search of moral insight, and her imagined society on Winter poses questions of how humans would organize themselves if we could all bear children and if we saw ourselves as humans first and sex objects only sometimes. It’s much more than just a love story, but in high school, I took it as one. Genly Ai’s long, slow, dawning appreciation of Estraven—and especially a night when he sees his friend shirtless, by a fire, as “gaunt and scarred … his face burned by cold almost as by fire … a dark, hard, and yet elusive figure in the quick, restless light”—set my standards for the highest romance.

Ursula K. Le Guin died on January 22, just a few weeks ago. In tribute, I made a menu from The Left Hand of Darkness, dreaming up foods Ai and Estraven could have brought on their perilous journey over the ice—or eaten at its end, when they stumble into a “hot shop” and are once again warmed by humankind. I mostly stuck to Le Guin’s world-building rules for Winter, which were “no large meat-animals … and no mammalian products, milk, butter or cheese; the only high-protein, high-carbohydrate foods are the various kinds of eggs, fish, nuts and Hainish grains.” I did, however, add some hot-climate items found in Manhattan’s Chinatown for their space-age looks and good flavors (dragonfruit, pomelo, galangal, chilis, and kaffir limes).


A giant Asian pomelo tastes like a sweeter version of a grapefruit and looks otherworldly.


One dish, inspired by a mention of “batter-fried sube-eggs,” is a grain-based porridge mixed with winter root vegetables from the Union Square farmers market, with the batter-fried egg on top. For another, I made fish cakes, which were a survival item for Ai and Estraven on their fateful tent trip (though theirs were dried, probably didn’t contain galangal and hot chilis, and definitely weren’t served with a spicy and delicious cucumber relish, as I recommend).


Fish cake with cucumber relish from Vatch’s Thai Cookbook: not indigenous to the planet Winter, but delicious.


The other tent-trip staple was “gichy-michy,” a kind of nutrition bar I imagined to be made with the “eternal breadapples” Ai mentions. At first, I tried to find breadfruit to combine with apple to make a sort of bread-apple, but it’s out of season. Star apples exist but have a slimy, okra-like texture not conducive to being baked (I tried). I ended up making nutty whole-wheat bars with a combination of apples and cranberries, which seemed appropriately wintry, and threw in some purple dragonfruit for alien flair.


Karhide hot-shop soup with mussels and Buddha lemon.


Overall, I found Winter’s low-food-chain ingredients easy to work with; they fit in well with our modern sustainability-oriented cooking, an approach Le Guin, a passionate environmentalist, would have welcomed. The sticking point was the drinks. The characters in The Left Hand of Darkness consume hot beer, which, Ai explains, may sound gross but “on a world where a common table implement is a little device with which you crack the ice that has formed on your drink between drafts, hot beer is a thing you come to appreciate.” Some research revealed that even on Earth, hot beer was common prior to refrigeration and often contained nutritious items like eggs or half-curdled cream. I tried several recipes that were uniformly undrinkable until coming up with an adaptation of something I read about in a Wall Street Journal story calling hot beer a trend. As improbable as it sounds, the results were wonderful, and I can only urge you all to try it. Remember, sometimes it’s nice to be speculative—in beers as well as in love and in fiction.



Hot Beer for Two

For best results, use the Samuel Smiths Nut Brown Ale specified in the recipe. The process of heating can make some beers much more bitter.

2 18 oz bottles of Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale
2 segments of pomelo for garnish
1/2 cup pomelo juice
3 sprigs tarragon
1 bay leaf

Cut your pomelo through the middle, making two very large slices, about half an inch thick. Cut the slices into attractive wedges. (The fruit wedges will wind up in the finished product, sort of like sangria.)

Juice half of the remaining pomelo, making about half a cup of juice.

Combine the beer, the pomelo juice and wedges, one sprig of the tarragon, and the bay leaf in a saucepan, and heat.

Serve in two mugs, removing the bay leaf and tarragon and garnishing with additional tarragon.



Batter-Fried Sube-Egg” Porridge with Winter Vegetables

For the porridge:

1 cup stone-ground oats
2 cups water
1/2 tsp salt
1/3 cup walnuts, chopped and toasted

Bring the water to a boil, add oats and salt, turn the heat down to a simmer, and cook for 25 to 30 minutes, until oats are soft but still chewy.

Stir in the toasted walnuts.



For the vegetables:

4 cups chopped winter root vegetables in any combination, such as beets, turnips, potatoes, and carrots
3 tbs olive oil
salt to taste

Preheat oven to 400 F.

Toss the root vegetables with the oil and plenty of salt in a glass baking dish.

Bake for 75 minutes, tossing every 25 minutes. Continue until vegetables are shrunken, caramelized, and starting to blacken.

Turn off the oven and leave the vegetables inside with the door closed for 10 more minutes to really get a good caramelization.



For the batter-fried egg:

The sube-egg was an invention of Le Guins for the planet Winter. I used ordinary chicken eggs. The following technique was adapted from The Novice Chef

2 eggs
1/2 cup flour, for dredging, seasoned with salt and pepper
1 egg, beaten, for dredging, seasoned with salt and pepper
1/2 cup bread crumbs, for coating, seasoned with salt and pepper
1/4 tsp dried marjoram
1/4 tsp dried oregano
1/4 tsp dried tarragon
1/4 tsp dried thyme
2 cups coconut oil or other good-tasting oil, for deep frying

Put two eggs in boiling water and cook for 5 minutes, until the white is set and the middle is still runny.

Plunge the eggs immediately into a bowl of ice water and allow to cool completely.

When the eggs are cool, peel by first gently cracking the shell around the middle of the egg. Handle with care; eggs will be wobbly.

Mix the dried spices into the seasoned bread crumbs.

Arrange an assembly line for dredging: first the flour, then the beaten egg, then the bread-crumb mixture.

Roll the peeled egg in flour, then dunk it in beaten egg, then roll in bread crumbs. Repeat with a second pass through the egg and bread crumbs for a thick coating.

Heat the oil until a bread crumb flicked at the surface sizzles.

Gently drop the battered eggs in the hot oil and cook until brown. This should take about 30 to 60 seconds.

Remove and drain on paper towels.

To assemble:

Divide the oatmeal into two bowls. Top with half the vegetables each and one batter-fried egg.

Note: I added some shredded black radishseen in the photossince it came in my aforementioned two-dollar veggie bag, but the taste was too strong, and I dont recommend it.



Karhide Hot-Shop Soup with Mussels and Buddha Lemon

I chose the Buddha lemon purely because it looked sci-fi and Id never seen one before. Its basically a big gnarl of soft rind with no lemon flesh or juice inside, but the fragrance and flavor are pleasant, floral, and mildly citrusy. In this recipe, its an aromatic. If you dont have a convenient source of Buddha lemons, an ordinary lemon will work.

2 tbs olive oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 cups chicken stock
1 lb potatoes, peeled and chopped
handful of green beans, chopped
2 lb bag of mussels, washed and debearded if need be
1/2 Buddha lemon, chopped (alternatively, 1/2 ordinary lemon, cut into wedges)
2 tbs fresh parsley, chopped

Heat the oil in a large skillet.

Add the garlic, potatoes, and green beans. Toss until vegetables are coated and the raw edge is off the garlic.

Add the chicken stock, cover, and simmer until vegetables are al dente, about 10 minutes.

Add the mussels and Buddha lemon, cover, and cook until the shells have opened, 2 to 3 minutes.

Taste for salt. Usually, there will be enough already between the shellfish and the stock, but if not, add more salt.

If using ordinary lemon instead of the Buddha variety, add it here, squeezing the wedges a little to release the juice.

Garnish with parsley and serve.



Fish Cakes with Kaffir-Lime Leaf and Cucumber Relish

This recipe is taken from my go-to for traditional Thai food, Vatch’s Thai Cookbook, and departs from the specifications in The Left Hand of Darkness by not being a dried fish cake. It is, however, a totally delicious fish cake, which I doubt any dried fish cake can be. The recipe makes about fifteen small cakes and is good for a shared appetizer. The specialty ingredients really are necessary for flavor and are available at Asian markets.

For the fish cakes:

5 dried red chilis, halved and seeded
1 shallot, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
2 coriander roots, chopped
1 tbs finely chopped galangal
6 kaffir-lime leaves, stemmed and chopped
1/2 tsp salt
1 lb ground whitefish fillet (cod, haddock, monkfish)
1 tbs fish sauce
2 oz thin green beans, very finely chopped
olive oil for frying

In a mortar, pound the chilis, shallot, garlic, coriander roots, galangal, kaffir-lime leaves, and salt to form a uniform paste. This takes about 10 minutes.


Pound the paste until it is uniform, with very few flecks of unmixed ingredients.


Place the paste in a mixing bowl and, using your fingers, thoroughly blend with the fish.

Add the fish sauce and the green beans and knead together.

Shape into small, flat cakes about two inches in diameter.

Heat about half an inch of oil in a large skillet (enough that the cakes won’t stick) and fry the cakes till they’re golden, about 3 minutes a side.



For the cucumber relish:

1 cup rice vinegar
4 tbs sugar
2 inches of cucumber, quartered lengthwise and finely sliced
1 small carrot, quartered lengthwise and finely sliced
1 shallot, finely sliced
1 fresh red chili, deseeded and finely sliced
1 tbs ground peanuts, toasted

Heat the vinegar with the sugar in a small saucepan, stirring until it dissolves.

Continue boiling for 3 to 5 minutes, until a thin syrup has formed.

Add the cucumber, carrot, shallots, and chili to the syrup once it has cooled. Set aside.

To assemble:

Sprinkle the ground peanuts over the plate of fish cakes. Place the relish on the side.



Gichy-Michy Bars

For the crust and topping:

2 cups white whole-wheat flour
1/2 cup wheat germ
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup ground almonds
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup coconut oil
1 egg, beaten
1 tsp ground cinnamon



Preheat the oven to 375 F.

Grease a 9 x 13 baking tray with coconut oil.

Combine the flour, wheat germ, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl.

Rub the coconut oil in with your fingers until the mixture has the consistency of rough sand. (If you are in a hot climate and your coconut oil is liquid, just add it and stir with a spatula until combined.)

Add the sugar and ground almonds and stir until the batter begins to clump.

Add the beaten egg, stirring thoroughly to combine.

Press three cups of this mixture firmly into the bottom of the baking tray.

Add the teaspoon of cinnamon to the rest of the mixture and stir. This will be your crumble topping.



For the filling:

2 cups cranberries
1 cup chopped dragonfruit
1 cup chopped apple
1/3 cup sugar
1 tbs cornstarch
1 tsp vanilla

Put all the ingredients in a large bowl and stir to combine.

To assemble:

Spread the filling on top of the crumb layer on the prepared tray.

Spread the rest of the crumble topping evenly on top, pressing it down slightly with a fork to help the cohesion of the finished bars.

Bake for 45 to 60 minutes, until the top is golden.

Allow the bars to cool completely, then refrigerate until chilled. Cut and serve.



Valerie Stivers is a writer based in New York. Read earlier installments of Eat Your Words here.