They are called hors d’œuvres, bocas, tapas, banchan, dim sum, thali, zakouski, pu pu platter, mezze… to name just a few. They are appetizers. Some are eaten between meals like tapas, some are served before the main course like hors d’œuvres, some announce the beginning of a meal like antipasto, some are served alongside the main dish like Moroccan salads. Each has its own story and characteristics; what they all have in common is that they are too small to constitute a meal in and of themselves—unless they’re eaten in large quantity, but that’s not the point. As the American television personality Joe Moore puts it, “Appetizers are the little things you keep eating until you lose your appetite.” Appetizers are meant only to calm your hunger, and that’s why there are never enough of them.
My favorite appetizers are what the French call amuses-bouches or canapés, a kind of hors-d’oeuvres that are not necessarily followed by a meal. Often served at receptions and cocktails, they provide just enough of the food element to create the atmosphere of familiarity that fosters informal chatting among people. Amuses-bouches are easy to pick up and taste in just one or two bites, and you can easily move about while enjoying them.
But above all, there is something chic and elegant about amuses-bouches. Unlike the down-to-earth tapas originally meant to cover long hours between farm work and dinner, or the substantial dim sum historically made for travelers along the Silk Road, amuses-bouches are an eighteenth-century French invention intended to please guests, and the tradition of hosting still defines these appetizers. In principle, as an invitee, you don’t order them, you don’t pay for them, and you don’t complain about them.
I discovered amuses-bouches as an art student in Aix-en-Provence while attending exhibit openings. With their visual and decorative aspects, they were the perfect appetizers for such occasions. The same types were served in all gatherings, which was nice because it let you go directly to those you crave most. These appetizers left such a mark on me that when a friend recently asked me to help cater her wedding, I recreated my favorites guided only by fond food memories.
To my amuses-bouches, I ventured to add a mini version of onion tart by French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, as well as a few different spreads by Moroccan chef Mourah Lahlou from Mourad New Moroccan, which I combined in a single cup. At the wedding reception, my older son sat on a stool at the bar where the appetizers were served, and I could hear him say, “My mom made these!”
Years later, you can still find in France the same amuses-bouches I knew when I was student, along with an array of more inventive ones—new combinations and pairings based on different cuisines. In the culinary world, appetizers seem to be viewed as an independent category complete with its own signature chefs and national competitions. According to Jean-Georges Vongerichten, “The amuse-bouche is the best way for a great chef to express his big ideas in small bites.” With appetizers, there is so much to explore and try, even if you’re not a “great chef,” because with these tiny portions, there is little risk of colossal failure.