The lost art of garnishing

It’s lunchtime. I was sitting amidst the busy lunch crowd at a food court. My phone was running on low battery and I still had half the day to conquer, so with nothing left to do, I watched the cleaner at work as she scraped leftovers into the bin. She moved on to the next table and did the same with a robotic efficiency — scrape leftovers. Wipe table. Move on. Repeat.

Out of curiosity, I peeked into the bin when she reached my table and all I saw were wilted, desolate-looking garnishes — soggy parsley, coriander, occasionally a piece of lettuce — among the bits of scrap.

Something broke my line of sight. It was my friend, back with two plates of chicken rice. Automatically the first thing I did (as I always do) was pick out the coriander and place it at the corner of my plate where soon, all the discarded chicken bones end up too. My colleague did the same without thinking because who eats the garnish anyway?

Here’s a universal truth: no garnish — ranging from those meticulously topped using a tweezer or carelessly tossed in as an afterthought — has ever truly added on to the experience of eating a dish. That is, unless you count the exciting treasure hunt for that sprig of curly parsley that has sunken beneath your Spaghetti Bolognese, threatening to ruin the glorious texture of chunky meat in tangy sauce mixed with slippery pasta.

As seen from my experience in the food court (and probably yours, too), nobody really gives a hoot about the garnish. Yet it is everywhere — the chiffonade of parsley on your carrot cream soup, the large leaf of lettuce spooning your Ayam Penyet and the most incredulous, almost insulting, leaf of basil on your vanilla ice cream.

Garnishing is seen to most people as a superfluous art. Granted, a strategically-placed garnish does spice the dish up a little (sadly only appearance-wise), getting rid of all that negative space in the plate that probably wouldn’t get you as many Likes as a more colourful dish might on Instagram. Some (my mom) might even say it “cleanses the palette” (probably because coriander tastes like soap).

But is having an Instagram-worthy dish truly worth all the effort put into garnishing? Think about the farmers toiling to plant these garnishes, their cost (which, mind you, might have been included in the price of your dish), the time wasted chopping them up in the kitchen… all that, for most of them to end up in the rubbish bin, contributing to food waste.

I suppose there is something to be said for “eating with the eye”, better known as “food porn”. Beautiful-decorated dishes are undeniably more appetising than pale ones with lacklustre presentation. Some even consider food plating a work of art, especially in high-end restaurants where presentation is as important as taste for the hefty bill consumers are footing. But for hawker and cafe foods in which many garnishes are carelessly strewn atop or swimming in gravy or soup, one really has to question the need for the art of garnishing.

by Rachel Lim