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Valshanti’s Spice Experience

This article was originally posted to the pre-magazine Freelance Traveller website in 2009, and lightly edited into its present form for the June/July 2014 issue.

Valshanti’s is a restaurant chain located along a trade main, especially on TL6+ worlds with populations of 6+. Restaurants are usually found along the busiest tourist-oriented thoroughfare in A and B downports. At least two restaurants are operated as “exclusive clubs” aboard luxury interstellar passenger liners. Few people know about the original Valshanti, a retired megacorporate financial specialist who started the restaurant as a kind of hobby—he’s been dead for decades, but the company he founded is doing well in his absence.

The outside appearance of a Valshanti’s varies depending on local trade regulations, prosperity, architectural norms and such, but is usually utilitarian and understated. The interior decor is a kind of kitschy attempt at pre-4th war sector court style, almost like it had been researched with a holonovel by someone who liked endless amounts of bric-a-brac. Pricing is that of the more upscale restaurants at the highport, and while usually busy there’s seldom a wait of more than a few minutes for a table.

Respectable dress and behavior are expected, but the staff are more lenient towards offworld aliens and other obviously foreign clients—this is company policy, as that touch of exoticness adds to the atmosphere the owners want to present. The lighting is bright, but not glaring—people want to see and be seen, especially because of the spectacles and ceremonies that make up the dining experience.

Tables are low, circled with multicolored seating cushions in a dazzling array of textures. The air is heady with the scents of odd spices, as wait staff and specialists thread between the tables bearing platters of bowls and decanters. The food is all a near-tasteless grey paste, and has been compared to both cream of wheat and argu. The beverages are all cool (but not cold) pure water. Both are presented in large covered tubs in the center of the tables, in some restaurants rising up through the center of the tables on unobtrusive lifts. Stacks of small bowls, capable of holding not more than a handful of the paste, are provided and quickly spirited away by the wait staff as they are used and emptied.

The main attraction of Valshanti’s, of course, is the spices. Gathered from “every corner of the cosmos”, each Valshanti’s is said to have a spice vault holding megacredits worth of exotic ingredients, doled out grain by grain by the Spicemasters in their “Symphonies of Flavor”. Revelers present their paste or water bowls to the extravagantly costumed Spicemasters to have tiny dabs of herbs, powdered seeds, pungent oils and more exotic flavorings added, and then carefully taste the result to experience what is described as a nirvana of subtle flavors.

This is all done in a ritualized style, and while newcomers are enthusiastically served the true adherents learn rituals as well to fully partake of the experience. Interest in these rituals has led, on some worlds, to them being treated as a mark of high culture, similar to the ancient Nihongo Tea Ceremony—participation in certain exclusive business or social groups may hinge on proper execution of a sip, bite, or appreciative expression.

Valshanti’s isn’t for everyone, of course. It takes a carefully cultured palate to appreciate the nuances present in each of the Spicemasters’ creations, and the grey paste itself has almost no nutritive content. There are those who don’t appreciate the experience; some go so far as to call the whole thing a massive sham, a collusion between the restaurateurs and the faux cultured—one offers a supposedly exotic experience and says that only the most refined can appreciate it, while adherents pretend to be those with the discernment to enjoy it. Some naysayers even claim that the special rituals associated with each spice are nothing more than a hodgepodge of religious ceremonies cribbed from historical records and fiction. A little bit of research on most worlds with a Valshanti’s will turn up an annotated list of many spice rituals and the fictional holonovels they supposedly came from.