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Five Small Plate Cuisines

Small plates is a manner of dining that became popular in American restaurant dining after 2000. However the tradition of small plate dishes can be seen in different cultures around the world where it is a fundamental and important part of the social interaction and lifestyle.

Variety of small plate dishes
Variety of small plate dishes
We will take a look at the culture, tradition and history of five different small plate cuisines from around the world.


Cicheti are small snacks or side dishes, typically served in traditional 'bàcari' (cicheti bars or osterie) in Venice, Italy. Common cicheti include tiny sandwiches, plates of thinly sliced prosciutto, cheese, artichokes, simple stuffed olives or other assorted vegetables, small servings of a combination of one or more of seafood, meat and vegetable ingredients laid on top of a slice of bread or polenta. Sarde in saor, (marinated sardines), salami and insalata di polpo (marinated octopus) are some classic cicheti.

Bruschetta with shrimp
Bruschetta with shrimp
Cicheti bars have a social standup area or cozy tables where you can try different food dishes which can be ordered from a menu or from a buffet table. In some of the more popular places, the local crowds spill happily out into the street.

Cicheti are generally ordered with an aperitivo, a before dinner drink, such as a bellini; ombra which is a small glass of local wine; spritz con aperol or spritz con campari, a wine-based cocktail that originated in Venice, while it was a part of the Austrian Empire.

Cicheti likely originated as a quick meal that catered to the original merchants of Venice. It is said that the city's wine merchants used to sell their wares in Piazza San Marco, moving throughout the day under the shadow of the campanile, or bell tower, to keep their wine cool. Ombra which is the colloquial term for a small glass of wine, is the Italian word for shadow. In this context, Andiamo a prendere un'ombra — 'Let's get some shade' came to mean 'Let's get a glass of wine', an affectionate colloquialism that survives to this day.

Eating cicheti is a social activity, with the day's events being discussed as people sip their drinks with each bite of food.

Dim Sum

The term 'dim sum' refers to a variety of small bite-sized dishes typically eaten over a long brunch and served with tea. Dim sum dishes can be savory or sweet and commonly prepared by steaming, frying or baking.

Dim sum in bamboo containers
Dim sum in bamboo containers
A traditional dim sum brunch includes soups, steamed vegetables, roasted meats and various types of buns, dumplings and rice noodle rolls filled with a mixture of fresh seafood, meat and vegetables. Dessert dim sum includes puffs, tarts and puddings.

Dim sum is linked with yum cha, or the act of drinking tea — so much so that even now the two phrases are used interchangeably. The unique culinary tradition began thousands of years ago, as an exclusive luxury made for the Emperor and his family, but it was also enjoyed by the wealthy. Eventually it was also served in tea houses along the ancient Silk Road through China where travelers would often need a place to rest before continuing on their journey. Dim sum means 'touch the heart' in Chinese. The small bite-sized portions were designed to merely touch the heart rather than be a full sized meal.

In southern China, and specifically Hong Kong, many traditional dim sum restaurants don’t serve dinner; instead, they open very early and close in the early afternoon.

The ways in which dim sum is served has varied over the years. The traditional method, known as 'push-cart' dates back to the early 60s, when dim sum items were precooked and brought out into the dining area in baskets by the restaurant employees. Today steam-heated carts are used at many restaurants to serve dim sum.

Dim sum has evolved over the years, however the social culture and traditions behind yum cha and dim sum remains the same: it is food to be enjoyed surrounded by friends and family that you love.


Izakaya which literally means 'stay-in sake shop' (sakaya) are Japanese pubs where people can relax and enjoy freshly prepared small plates of food along with their drinks. In the Western world, the izakaya would be thought of as a Happy Hour venue, where people come after work for cheap food and drink to relax after a day at work. Izakayas vary greatly in style, price, menu and atmosphere.

One of the biggest difference between izakaya and restaurant is that the food portions are served in small plates, something to go with the drinks. These small plates are called 'tsumami' which can vary based on the seasons and places.

Izakaya grill sticks
Izakaya grill sticks
Popular izakaya food includes skewered items on the grill called yakitori (which includes chicken, meats, and vegetables on skewers), sashimi, sushi, tofu, stuffed peppers, soups and many other dishes traditional as well as modern.

The origin of Izakaya goes back as far as the Edo period (1603-1867). They began as liquor shops, where one could buy a bottle of sake and sit to drink it. Eventually food was added to menus and the drink lists expanded with the introduction of foreign liquors.

The dining experience at an izakaya is to try different types of food along with your drink, in the company of family or friends.


Meze or Mezze is a selection of small hot and cold dishes typically served at the beginning of multi-course meals or by itself in Turkish, Greek, Balkan and Middle Eastern cultures.

Kisir bulgur meze
Kisir bulgur meze
In Turkey, meze often consist of a variety of eggplant dishes, fried calamari or squid, stuffed or fried mussels, octopus salad, lamb kebabs, artichokes, yogurt with cucumber and garlic, rice stuffed vine leaves or other stuffed vegetables and meatballs.

In Greece, Cyprus and the Balkans, mezé, mezés, or mezédhes (plural) are small dishes, hot or cold, spicy or savory. Seafood and meat dishes may be included, along with salads, garlic bread, hummus, kalamata olives, stuffed peppers, fava beans, sliced boiled eggs, fried vegetables, eggplant salad and rolls, and a variety of sheep, goat, or cow cheeses.

In Turkey, meze is usually served with soft drinks, wine or raki an anise flavored liquor typically distilled from grape pomace(skins, seeds and stems). In Greece, ouzo is the preferred drink, which is similar to the raki.

In all these different cultures, eating is a social event accompanied by traditional music and lively conversations.


Tapas are a wide variety of small savory Spanish dishes, hot or cold, typically served with drinks at a bar.

Platter of serrano jamon cured meat
Platter of serrano jamon cured meat
Some popular tapas include olives, different cheeses, tiny fried fish or prawns, scallops or octopus seasoned with different sauces, serrano ham or sausages, small toasted sandwiches with meat, fish and vegetarian fillings, meatballs, omelette and small casseroles of stews.

The origin of the word tapa, which literally means cover, from the name given to the slice of ham, cheese or bread used to cover the wine glass served to the horsemen as they arrived at the roadside inn. The tapa protected the wine glass from flies or dust. The tapa was free and the patron paid only for the wine, typically a sherry, which is considered as a perfect accompaniment. Another version of the story says that, since tapas bars were traditionally small drinking places, people who ordered a snack had nowhere to put their plate but on top of their glass, hence the name.

In Spain, tapas are generally ordered with a sherry, or a rioja wine, cava or a caña which is a small beer.

Tapas are of great culinary importance in Spain and Spanish cities are constantly competing to be known as the best place for tapas.

Article Category:
Food & Culture

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