Whether they're labeled as small plates, "good to share" or tapas, menus of dishes meant for a group continue to grow in popularity at restaurants around town. But what about restaurants where sharing food is traditional rather than trendy? Why do many people still walk into a Chinese, Thai or Indian restaurant and order individually, rather than choosing a collection of dishes for the table?
Some people may choose not to share because they assume the menu has been Americanized and adapted to individual portions. Others may not want to go to the trouble of agreeing with their companions about what should and should not be ordered. Still others may be worried that they are more or less hungry than everyone else, and that too much attention will be paid to their eating habits if they share.
Ordering and eating together does require a little more cooperation and a little less individual control, but it brings ample rewards.
At the Green Mango Noodle Hut, a local Thai restaurant with locations in Regent Square and Monroeville, the menu is designed to encourage sharing, explained Kathy SaeNgian, a former Post-Gazette intern whose parents own the restaurants and who manages the Monroeville location. "Thai food is served a lot like tapas-style, you order a little bit of everything. Portions at our restaurants are always very large and everything we make we tailor to family-style eating."
Even the restaurant's summer rolls (technically a Vietnamese specialty, said Ms. SaeNgian, but a very popular appetizer) are cut into bite-size pieces, so they're easy for a group to share.
Balance of flavors within individual dishes and the overall meal is important in Thai cuisine, so Ms. SaeNgian suggested ordering a spicy dish, a sweet dish and a mild dish to counterbalance everything. Salads and large bowls of soup would be served with curries and noodles, rather than in a separate course. A typical meal might include a spicy larb salad with ground meat or tofu, chiles, mint and kaffir lime leaves ($7.50-8.50), the roast duck noodle soup ($9.50), the drunken noodles ($10-11.95) and the sweet, rich green curry with chicken ($9.50).
Green Mango's menu is divided into categories which make it easy to assemble a well-balanced order, and the pricing of most soups and salads emphasizes that these are part of the meal, not appetizers.
Some restaurants include even more explicit information on their menus and web sites, emphasizing that sharing is the norm and the best way to appreciate that cuisine.
At Abay, an Ethiopian restaurant in East Liberty, the web site and menu include explicit instructions for eating Ethiopian food: "Meals are served on platters to be shared among diners. Instead of actual utensils, Ethiopians use injera as a substitution for a fork or a spoon. . . . In keeping with Ethiopian tradition, Abay serves its food on a platter with injera as opposed to providing individual plates for each guest (plates and utensils are available upon request)."
It's worth noting that sharing seems to be the default at Abay, more so than at other international restaurants without explicit instructions.
At many Korean restaurants, the variety of banchan, or complimentary side dishes, might encourage some diners to share, since they're already passing around a number of dishes. At Korea Garden in Oakland, servers are eager to guide neophytes in assembling an order, but they will often stick to the restaurant's greatest hits, such as bi bam bap served in a stone pot and bulgogi rather than venturing into some of the more obscure specialties. Pay attention to what other tables are ordering and ask your server to identify it on the menu for your next visit.
Of course, sharing food doesn't have to be about a quest for an authentic experience. Absolute authenticity is a mythical notion that will always be contradicted by the experiences of individual families with their distinct eating traditions. You don't have to know the rules of a specific cuisine to enjoy sharing a meal; in fact, sometimes it's nice to break them. Coconut chutney might be a South Indian condiment, but that doesn't mean it's not delicious with a North Indian chicken biryani. If everyone at the table loves lamb, why not compare and contrast several different versions?
But sharing food has so many benefits besides appreciating a more authentic experience. Some dishes just don't make sense as individual portions. At Rose Tea Cafe, my favorite dishes include the Taiwanese specialty braised pork ($12.95), which consists of a heaping plate of thick wedges of pork belly on top of a pile of sautéed bitter greens. Though a balanced addition to a meal for a group of diners, this dish would be absurd as an individual order. The chef's special eggplant with garlic sauce ($9.95) is an equally substantial serving of this meaty vegetable, with its delicate skin and velvety flesh, almost liquid from quick, hot cooking. Though it's delicious, anyone would quickly grow tired of eating just this eggplant as a meal.
Sharing food with a group, especially if the group is large or the associations are new, can be extremely challenging. This social barrier may be the biggest challenge. But usually all it takes is for one person to suggest ordering a bunch of dishes for everyone to share.
Different dietary preferences can make things seem complicated. One person might be a vegetarian, another might eat poultry and fish, while a few others might prefer their food only mildly spiced.
Depending on the size of the group, it's often helpful to just embrace the most restrictive requirements, at least for most of the dishes. If the menu is large, it makes selecting an order that much easier, and it ensures that everyone feels included.
Different preferences for spicy food are usually easy to accommodate. Order most, if not all, dishes mild and ask for hot sauce or some sliced chiles on the side.
One of the tremendous benefits of group ordering is sharing the risk of trying new things. Its hard to abandon old favorites to try something that might not be as good. But when assembling large orders, it's easy to include a balance of old and new options. If one person is much more experienced with a restaurant or a certain cuisine, why not let him or her determine the order, within some parameters such as the number of dishes and preferred proteins? Another good way to assemble an order is to ask everyone to pick one dish, go around the table and then make some changes if there is too much overlap.
Some see sharing simply as way of trying more items on the menu, but it is much more than that. Sharing food is one of the most ancient symbols of trust and friendship. There may be no easier way to generate intimacy, to create family memories, or to turn acquaintances into friends than to sit down and together determine what you will all be having for dinner.