When it comes to food in fantasy novels, stew is infamous. The immediate credit (or blame) for this is that of well-established author Diana Wynne Jones. In her wonderful parody guidebook, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, she regularly mocked the ubiquity of stew in fantastical lands. Take, for example, this excerpt from her definition of stew:
STEW ... is the staple FOOD in Fantasyland, so be warned. ... Stew will be what you are served to eat every single time. ... Stew seems to be an odd choice as a staple food, since, on a rough calculation, it takes forty times as long to prepare as steak. But it is clear the inhabitants have not yet discovered fast food.
Jones' message was reiterated throughout the book, in regular, humorous mentions of stew, and readers and writers took heed.
Elizabeth Moon referred to it as 'the stew convention'. Brian Stableford, in Science Fact and Science Fiction: An Encylopedia, commented on stew's 'ever-presence' in the 'Secondary Worlds of commodified fantasy'. The ubiquity of stew is pre-established knowledge too in Michele Acker's essay on food in The Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy. My host here too has noted the subject in passing in a guest post at Voyager Online.
And they're right. There really is a lot of stew in fantasy novels. It's a default dish, in Narnia, in Damar, on Pern, in the Shannara books, and in the Belgariad. Authors put it in thoughtlessly. I told a fellow medievalist about this project a few months ago at a conference; she admitted to being an unpublished fantasy novelist, and said she had no memory of what her characters ate on their travels. When I saw her again the next day, she'd printed out a sheaf of papers for me, excerpts from her work, all instances of the stew which littered the diets of her fictional people.
What observers of fantasy literature have missed, in noting the predominance of stew in Fantasyland's diet, is that stew is also common in science fiction. Instances of stew in science fiction are by no means limited to fantasy-influenced places, such as Pern or Robin Owens' Celta. One Star Trek fan page lists six canonical stews for its universe, not counting the chowders, gumbos, and chili con carne which are also regularly referred to (in other contexts) as stews. Vonda McIntyre's Star Wars novelizations and spin-offs regularly involve stew. It's in Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human, Ursula LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness, S.M. Stirling's Emberverse, Ken McLeod's The Star Fraction, Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines quartet, and Linnea Sinclair's Dock Five books. The genre even has an (in)famous stew, that in Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land.
Stew, in literature, in ancient. Theseus stewed his son Pelops to serve him to the gods. In Genesis, 25: 33-34, Esau sells his inheritance to his brother, Jacob, for a bowl of lentil stew. Dante, in the Inferno, encountered souls being stewed in pitch for the demons to eat. As a cooking method, of course, it's even old. The world's oldest cookbook (c. 1600 BCE) is largely comprised of Mesopotamian stews.
In English, it's a much more recent word. The Oxford English Dictionary's earliest attested use of it to mean a type of food is from 1756. The word itself, cognate with 'stove', goes back to the fourteenth century, meaning 'fish pond', 'pot', 'Turkish bath', and, by extrapolation from bath, a 'brothel'.
Pottage was the Middle English name for the same dish. Porridge, cognate with pottage, was a stew whose name comes from the Latin porrum, meaning 'leek'. Both are, depending on context, translatable as 'stew', as are chowders, gumbos, chilis, casseroles, cassoulet, baked beans, hot pot, ragout, goulash, daubes, navarins, curries, and all sorts of other soups, stews, and meats cooked with the sauce with which they are going to be served. I have found instances of all of these dishes being referred to as 'stew' in modern literature or on websites. While your own definition of stew may preclude some of these as stew, at least one person, somewhere, has thought 'stew' a useful way of explaining what they are.
What I have found is that, when forced to describe alien or foreign foods, writers revert to basic Anglo-Saxon, or at least very well established, words: meat, cheese, bread, stew. 'Spice' made it into English by the fourteenth century, and it's a staple of the 'neutral' vocabulary used to describe the unknown. Their lack of immediate baggage is what make them useful tools for describing food in other lands, whether fantasy, science fiction, or travelogues from our own world.
So stew, I would argue, is an extremely useful word, neutral, accessible, but not weighed down by baggage to the degree that vindaloo, bouillabaisse, and doro wat are, part of a suitable and very limited language which English language users can access to evoking the alien.
Finally, a rather overlooked point in discussion of clichés: stew isn't the most common food in Fantasyland. The food eaten everywhere, and on nearly all occasions in Fantasyland, is bread.
Dr. Shana Worthen teaches on both sides of the ocean simultaneously, at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and Canterbury Christ Church University. She works on medieval technology, including food technologies, and has recently launched a new weblog on the language of food, OnePeppercorn.com.