It may be all the rage in the restaurant world now, but call it tapas, mezza, or dim sum, small-plate dining has been a culinary staple of many cultures for centuries.
People love small plates for lots of reasons. Eating is a social experience. Ordering a bunch of small dishes for a group of people to share reinforces the camaraderie and connection we feel when we dine together. As we’ve grown increasingly health-conscious, diners are taking nutrition experts’ advice: eating small meals throughout the day keeps us feeling more energetic and our metabolisms revved up. The built-in portion control that comes with small plate dining can also help people achieve or maintain a healthy weight.
For travelers, small plate dining is ideal for many reasons. Often our days are jam-packed. There are art treasures to see, beaches to bask on, mountain trails and outdoor markets to explore, after all. Stopping for a light, unfussy bite to eat helps us pack more into a day than sitting down to what might amount to an hours-long four-course feast. And small plate dining is also its own adventure. It’s a great way to sample a series of local eateries in one fell swoop without stuffing ourselves silly. But truth be told, when faced with a tempting variety of dishes at each venue you visit, over-indulging is still a distinct possibility—at least in my experience.
To get an even bigger kick out of small plate dining around the world, learning to order in the local vernacular is a worthy endeavor. The best language learning software focuses on teaching practical vocabulary first. You’ll often find lessons on how to order food early on in the curricula. And wait staff will be extra-appreciative for your having made the effort.
So let’s take a small plate spin around the world and learn what adventures await you in some of our favorite destinations.
Spain: Tapas and Its Basque Cousin Pintxos
Stories abound about how tapas became a way of life in Spain. My favorite is this simple, utilitarian tale. Centuries ago, barkeepers routinely covered the glasses of wine and sherry they were serving with tiny plates. They did it for a very practical reason: to keep flies at bay. (Tapas is derived from the Spanish verb “tapar,” meaning “to cover.”) Before long, they recognized an opportunity to attract customers and whet their appetite for more drinking by putting some lovely morsel of food on each plate. A few crunchy Marcona almonds. Olives cured in salty brine. The snacks were simple at first and some of these original offerings are still commonly served at tapas bars. But the tapas tradition has expanded to encompass more complex dishes made from seafood, meats, vegetables, pastry, and more.
In the Basque region of Spain, a separate but related tradition has evolved. Pintxos are Basque treats typically served on top of bread and skewered with a toothpick. The word ‘pintxos’ means to pierce. A dozen leftover toothpicks on your plate means you have dined well, indeed.
India: Thali for One or Family-Style
According to Indian culinary custom, a perfect meal is one that encompasses six “flavors”: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, hot, and astringent. The custom is actually based on Ayurvedic principles of health. Thali is a way of achieving this ideal. Thali is often served in a divided plate or on a platter that carries many small bowls. At a banquet, you’d be likely to see a thali platter more than four feet across.
A traditional Thali meal starts and ends with something sweet. Banana chips or banana sharkara, a banana fritter of sorts, often begin the meal. Payasam, a pudding sometimes made with rice or noodles, or galub jamun, bite-size cakes that are sometimes bathed in rosewater or syrup, are enjoyed last in the Thali dining tradition. In between these two sweet bookends, you’ll encounter the other five flavors. A meat-based Thali might include smoked meats, a fish curry, or braised mutton, but vegetarian Thalis are also very popular. Rice, flatbreads, and yogurt are common accompaniments to all of these dishes. There’s also a delightful, highly photogenic variation on the metal-platter Thali: sometimes Thali is served on a banana leaf.
Mezza: A Cross-Continental Tradition
From Morocco to Milos to Montenegro, the small plates known as mezza comprise a sweeping culinary tradition. Humble ingredients like olives, tomatoes, and garlic are the shared bedrock of mezza, but recipes in mezza-loving countries will vary according to dominant regional ingredients and religious restrictions.
In the Balkan states, cured meats and sausages make up the bulk of the mezza menu. Sudzuk, a beef sausage, is common in Muslim homes, where eating pork is prohibited. The dish gets its striking red color from generous amounts of sumac, a lemony spice derived from the berry of the sumac tree. Sumac trees grow wild in the Mediterranean region and the Middle East. Regional cheeses, including halloumi, labneh, and feta, and yogurt dips add a dairy component to many mezza platters. Vegetarian mezza platters often feature smoky roasted eggplant, deep-fried falafel, grape leaves stuffed with rice, herbs, and raisins, and spreads made from chickpeas and sesame seeds.
Dim Sum: Sharing a Chinese Tradition
Dim Sum is thought to have originated in the Canton region of China, but has been adopted throughout the Chinese provinces and the world. Nearly every neighborhood dubbed Chinatown, from London to Melbourne to San Francisco, hosts dim sum dining.
Dim sum is most often served as breakfast or brunch. Servers at a dim sum restaurant meander their way around tables, pushing rolling carts topped with small plates. Dim sum is social eating, grounded in sharing small portions so everybody gets just a bite of each delicacy. Steamed and fried buns and dumplings filled with shrimp and pork are perennial dim sum favorites. Adventurous travelers might want to sample Feng Zhua (chicken feet served in black bean sauce) and zhu hong (pork blood cubes). Buns stuffed with red bean paste, tamarind, peaches or pineapple, coconut balls, and egg tarts are a perfect sweet finish to a dim sum meal. If you want to really indulge, some dim sum establishments serve a separate dessert course that can overwhelm you with its variety—and calories.
Korea: Banchan Cuisine is Rooted in Buddhism
A classic Banchan dining experience consists of small plates served with soup, rice, and kimchi—the ubiquitous fermented vegetable dish served with every meal in Korea. The Banchan tradition dates back to the Three Kingdoms era of Korean history. Buddhism came to Korea in the 4th century CE, and the Buddhist influence on Banchan cuisine is still evidenced by the wealth of vegetarian dishes that appear on Banchan menus.
From seaweed, spicy cucumber, and spinach salads to pan-fried zucchini and garlic-chive pancakes, Banchan dining is tailor made for vegetarians and vegans. But meat and fish enthusiasts won’t be disappointed. The Banchan tradition evolved as centuries passed and moved away from its Buddhist roots. Pancakes made from shellfish are a staple of Banchan dining now. Soy-braised brisket and galbi (short rib) are other fork-tender favorites.
There’s More on the Menu
These are just a few of the small plate dining traditions world travelers can look forward to. Italian antipasti, French charcuterie boards, and Hawaiian pupu platters are a few others that come to mind. Eating small is big. You can do it on a global scale. Moreover, it’s a great way for travelers to gain a broad understanding of any culinary culture.
Susan Doktor is a journalist and business strategist who hails from New York City. She writes, guest-, and ghost-blogs internationally on a wide range of topics including travel, family, and food and wine.
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