When we hear the term ‘a square meal’, what do we think of?
Usually something wholesome and hearty. Meat and two veg, that sort of thing. These associations probably arise because we’ve developed an innate, intuitive understanding of balance to what we eat.
But just as there’s a sense of balance that comes in how often we eat per day, with three meals being fairly standard across the globe, there’s also some now ubiquitous traditions to do with how often we eat per meal. With three courses, to be precise. No more, no less.
So how did three course meals come about?
The precursor to the three course meal tradition was, like so many other things, the Romans. Food and dining in the roman empire is worthy of its own dedicated encyclopaedia, but rest assured that this ancient civilisation, well known for their habits of gorging and purging, were early champions and popularisers of a structured, course based meal.
Historians think that Abu l-Hasan (known as Ziryab), who was an eighth century musician and teacher of the medieval Islamic period, was the first to advocate three courses specifically. Ziryab was a keen influencer of trend and taste, who revolutionised the cuisine of his locality by introducing new produce like asparagus, and brought in the three course meal tradition, determining that meals ought to be served in three distinct stages of first soup, then a main course, before a dessert to finish.
So one thousand years on, should you opt for the traditional 3 courses?
The short answer is: you do you. There, done. The long answer involves an exploration of the current high-street and plethora of culinary delights on offer in the modern world. Read on.
An ode to the starter
There’s something quite special about sitting down with a menu and seeing three distinct sections. When eyeing the list of starters, do you go for something dependable and reliable to get your stomach going? Or perhaps something bolder and more adventurous? After all, it’s only going to be a small plate, so what’s the risk?
In fact, a good starter becomes known as just that. A starter. Not just a great combination of flavours or textures, but as a placeholder dish, it just gains a life of its own and is always associated with being a starter on a menu. Pâté, soup, garlic mushrooms, even dough balls! These wouldn’t work as main meals, but there’s a joy to having them at the beginning of a meal before the main.
Beyond the rule of three
That said, mixing it up a bit can have its benefits. Some Italian meals, when stretched beyond the basic starter – main – dessert format, may include a pasta course, or some gnocchi. This amended structure guarantees that these staples of Italian dining find their way into your meal.
Fish courses are common among longer form meals. There may even be time for a palette cleaners of sorts. It may seem a little grandiose, but it can be a wonderful experience, as these alternate courses can be sequenced carefully to suggest a narrative, or can capitalise on stark contrast in flavours, textures and styles for a more dramatic episode.
Courses across the world
So what about meal structures in other traditions. While a sweet course tends to come last in a majority of cultures, we can look across the sea to find great variety in the way that meals are formed.
Take the sushi bar as an example. You sit at a table and watch the food pass you by, only taking the dishes you’re interested in. There are no rules here. One two, seven, eight, ten courses. The world is your oyster. Speaking of oysters, in some fishing communities, these are a kind of street food – a snack to enjoy before you go about your day. A course that floats free of a meal entirely!
Look to Spain or the Middle East for a swathe of sharing platters, where smaller dishes are spread across the table and groups of friends or families can gorge to their heart’s content. Ever wondered where the term ‘smorgasbord’ comes from? That’s a Scandinavian buffet-style platter.
The opportunities are endless with modern high-street dining. With a plethora of different styles and cuisines on offer, whether you’re in the mood for a structured, course-based meal, or want to share a variety of delicious small plates with friends, there’s something out there for everyone. Bon appétit