Whetting Your Appetizer

September 1, 2003

8 Min Read
Whetting Your Appetizer

Legendary food writer M.F.K. Fisher defined it as “the overture to the opera.” A small portion meant to stimulate or whet the appetite, the appetizer is a preface to the main meal to come. Its only limitations are the chef’s imagination and product availability.

Today’s society uses “snack item,” “appetizer” and “hors d’oeuvre” synonymously. Traditionally, however, there is a difference. Snack items are small bites meant to be eaten on their own. An hors d’oeuvre, translated as “outside the meal,” is a small, hand-held, one- or two-bite item served separate from or as the prelude to the meal. The appetizer is designed as the starting point or first course, and should complement the rest of the dishes to follow. Ultimately, the main difference between an hors d’oeuvre and appetizer is not the food, but when it is served.

Appetizers have played a role in the dining experience since first-century Rome. Upper-class Romans ate eggs and a variety of fruits as part of a three-course meal. Indeed, throughout the ages, primarily the upper class enjoyed appetizers, due to the large disparity in social and economic class distinctions.

Before the 20th century, wealthy Americans enjoyed the Old World tradition of appetizers, which consisted mostly of soups, oysters on the half shell or dainty open-faced sandwiches laid out on the table before the main meal. In the 1900s, chunks of celery stuffed with sardine paste were the standard. By the 1920s, recipes featured celery stuffed with a variety of meat and cheeses.

Some theorize that the appetizer gradually eased into mainstream American menus as cocktail appetizers served during Prohibition. Originally, these started as hors d’oeuvres or nibbles set out at the bar for patrons to eat, and to delay the effects of the alcohol so they would drink more. This introduced Americans to the practice of consuming a small portion or tidbit before eating the main meal.

By the 1940s, appetizers consisting of meats, anything-goes stuffed items and a variety of vegetable rings had gained popularity. At that time, James Beard broadened the public’s view of appetizers by describing dips in his cookbook, Hors d’Oeuvre and Canapés, writing, “I think it is delightful to have large bowls of cheese mixtures that are of a consistency that permits ‘dunking.’” His description of a variety of dips led to the popularity of this appetizer style.

In the 1980s, chefs introduced the concept of “grazing,” intending to challenge customers’ palates with a variety of flavors rather than exhausting them with one item. In the 1990s, restaurateurs expanded their appetizer menus, coaxing the customer to try a variety of items and make a meal out of several appetizers, in lieu of an entrée. The menu phrase “little plates” signified appetizers’ entrance into the spotlight and the increasing sophistication of American diners.

Appetizers are taking an increasingly important role in today’s dining experience. Not just for foodies or the elite, the concept is now familiar to most Americans. In the past two decades, as consumers ate more meals outside the home, they were introduced to and became more accepting of the grazing and “little plate” concepts. Today, menus in all types of restaurants, from five-star resorts like American Club, Kohler, WI, to restaurant chains such as Arby’s, highlight appetizers. The food industry recognizes their perceived value and is offering more variety to consumers through these small plates.

For the restaurant or vendor, appetizers are a chance to increase sales. For the consumer, they pose an opportunity to taste a variety of items and promote a more interactive communal dining experience. Now, a group of people will commonly order several starters, and share them so that everyone can try different items.

Most cultures embrace the concept of appetizers, from the Italian antipasto (“before the pasta”) to Lebanese mezza. Some exceptions are the Vietnamese and Thai cuisines, which traditionally serve all courses at once for the whole group to share, similar to family-style dining.

Two cultures that have fully embraced the idea of sampling small dishes are the Spanish and the Chinese. In Spain, the word “tapa” translates as “cover.” Tapa defines a style of eating rather than a particular kind of food — a tradition that most likely originated in Andalusia, a southern province of Spain. The appetizers originally consisted of a slice of ham or sausage, served on the top of a glass of sherry. This was to oblige King Felipe II, who passed a royal decree requiring tavern keepers to accompany each glass of wine with a tapa, to reduce public drunkenness. Today, the ingredients vary based on the region or season and the creativity of the cook. Some common tapas are simple marinated olives, seared scallops with saffron-orange aïoli, and sausage smothered with sweet and sour figs.

Dim sum translates from the Chinese as, “to touch your heart,” and as a food course, commonly consists of a variety of steamed or fried dumplings and other dishes. The tradition of sampling small dishes, which began more than a hundred years ago in the Canton region, is linked to the tradition of yum cha, or tea drinking. Teahouses, which sprung up along the Silk Road as rest stops for weary travelers, evolved into places to sample food and tea. This led to the custom of making a meal out of bite-size dim sum chosen off a cart wheeled to the table. Examples of these appetizers include sio pao, a steamed bun usually filled with barbecued pork; kaffir-lime and lemongrass dumplings; and mini hoisin-glazed spareribs.

In developing an appetizer concept today, anything goes. Although there are some guidelines to consider, for every rule dictated from the past of what does or does not constitute an appetizer, you will discover at least one good exception. Even the legendary chef Auguste Escoffier did not include a separate section on appetizers in the Escoffier Cookbook: A Guide to the Fine Art of Cookery, explaining, “I did not think it necessary to touch upon the hot kind [of appetizers and hors d’oeuvres], for they are mostly to be found either among hot entrées or the savories proper.”

The average consumer has a more experimental palate, the result of traveling and exposure to other cuisines. The wide acceptance of fusion cooking and the blending of ingredients and cooking methods of several ethnic regions has assisted consumer acceptance of a variety of appetizers. One example is a rock-shrimp lollipop with a spicy pepper-almond sauce, which resembles the Vietnamese specialty of shrimp paste on sugar cane but is served with a contemporary version of a Spanish romesco sauce.

Although traditional standards like pâté, galantines and escargot in garlic butter still appear on menus, dishes based on pasta, vegetables and grains are receiving more exposure. This reflects the influence of Mediterranean cuisine, which focuses on simplistic appetizers of well-executed grilled vegetables, for example, or a flavorful couscous salad. Also, health trends and the desire for food purity has stimulated chefs to create lighter dishes, like a simple roasted portobello, or chanterelle mushrooms atop a bed of mixed greens with a splash of balsamic vinegar, rather than smothered in butter.

Ultimately, three things most appetizers have in common are careful attention to portioning, sound technical execution and presentation. Here are standard guidelines to keep in mind during their design:

Appropriate portion size. This is the start of the dining experience, not the whole dinner. Limit appetizer portions to 2 to 3 oz. of chicken, for instance, rather than a full 6- to 8-oz. portion.

Complements other courses. It is important to avoid serving foods similar in taste or texture to the main dishes — for example, shrimp bisque before grilled shrimp pasta. Here, both the shrimp and the heaviness of the dishes are similar. A roasted-eggplant and red-pepper terrine would be a more complementary appetizer.

Visually attractive. The appetizer is the first impression of what is to come. It should be appealing and create interest without overwhelming diners. A fresh salad with grilled vegetables in a variety of colors is more striking than just plain lettuce.

Flavorful, not overpowering. The appetizer is meant to stimulate the appetite, not deaden the palate. It is very easy to fall into the trap of overseasoning with garlic, fresh herbs or spices that make it impossible to taste the following courses. For example, serving a fiery chicken tostada laden with cascabel chiles will deaden the senses. Meanwhile, ancho chiles, achiote seeds or pepitas — Mexican-style pumpkin seeds — lend a flavorful impact but still allow diners to enjoy the entire meal.

Although people have widely accepted the concept of a starter or appetizer, they haven’t fully incorporated it into everyday eating habits. They enjoy courses while dining out or entertaining, but at home, it is a rush just to get food on the table. The old standby — protein, starch and a vegetable — becomes the priority, rather than the question of which course should be served first.

Snack foods or on-the-go items are everywhere, though the food industry really hasn’t focused on the “snack before” concept or the idea of having an appetizer before starting the main part of a meal. For now, cheese and crackers or some vegetables stave off hunger while the meal is being prepared, rather than whetting our appetite.

This segment needs to be developed. Cross marketing could take advantage of consumers’ educated palates to put the appetizer into the limelight. A frozen-entrée producer, for example, could put the following recommendation on its lasagna-dinner labeling: “Check out our portobello-mushroom dip. It’s ready in 4 minutes to enjoy while the lasagna is cooking.”

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