Chefs explain: What’s the point of an amuse bouche?

If you’ve been dining in fancy restaurants – chances are – you’ve probably seen the words ‘amuse bouche’ on the menu right above the starters when you’re placing an order — no description, whatsoever.

Moments later, you find a plate of pretty little thingamajigs right in front of you; leaving you to wonder: ‘Are these the appetisers that I’ve ordered?’

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The term ‘amuse bouche’ (pronounced ah-myuz boosh) is French for mouth amuser. Similar to the concept of canapes, amuse bouche is a complementary small bites that are served at the start of their multi-course dinner.

Amuse bouche inspired by pulled pork taco

The amuse bouche was born out of France’s nouvelle cuisine movement in the early 1970s. In Europe – mostly France – they are more common and served in many eateries, from local bistros to star-studded Michelin restaurants. Over the years, the amuse bouche has evolved into a plate revelled in flair, grace and elegance.

One would think that with such small bites, amuse bouches wouldn’t matter in the scheme of a meal. But according to Chef Raymond Tham from Skillet@163 KL, they are hardly an afterthought.

Chef Raymond Tham of Skillet@163 and Beta KL

“Amuse bouche is a bite-size hors d’oeuvre (French for appetiser), served before the appetisers; and usually complimentary from the house. The summer version is usually cool and refreshing while during the winter season, we serve warm and comforting morsels – both utilising selected seasonal ingredients,” shares chef Tham.

He admits that because the dish is so small, he is more adventurous to try and pair foods that diners normally wouldn’t order – think blue cheese and cardamom, or octopus with watermelon.

Close-up of spiced cheese treats decorated with herbs and vegetable.

It may be difficult to transform an amuse bouche into a main dish, but it is a way for many chefs to experiment with new ingredient pairings and techniques as a teaser of what is yet to come. It creates an opportunity for chefs to also show off their finesse and creativity in the kitchen.

These tiny morsels can be as whimsical and packed with drama in a small package or as clean and simply unpretentious. What the amuse bouche lacks in size, it makes up for in flavour – big time.

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Prepping the array of amuse bouche is quite a satisfying one, visually.

Jammed-packed with interesting flavours, these dainty appetisers are usually not on the menu. They are seasonal and change constantly depending on food trends and seasons.

“There shouldn’t be any limitation to creating [an] amuse bouche, as long as the ingredients make sense and allow diners to have something they can look forward to in the next course. In my opinion, a good amuse bouche should be something that doesn’t overpower the palate but more along the lines of flirting with your appetite,” opines chef Tham.

The bubbly chef also enjoys creating amuse bouches that pair well with their house champagne. His most bizarre appetiser anchors the jellyfish, which is common in Asian cooking but rare in Europe. His creation comes in a form of dainty delights made of pickled jellyfish, torch-ginger flower (bunga kantan), nitro pomelo, balsamic caviar and avocado cream; which goes very well with Veuve Clicquot.

“I had one of the best amuse bouche during a recent trip to Lima, Peru. It was a trio of sushi rice cracker with avocado, trout belly and ponzu gel; gourmet sausage, roasted banana, sachatomate emulsion, crunchy tapioca and ponzu; and chawanmushi with Aji negro (a type of black chilli),” recalls chef.

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Petit pastries with salmon, caviar, shrimp and dill fronds

Honest to goodness, this little nibble of sorts can be almost anything. It should ‘explode’ in the mouth, burst into mind-blowing flavours and perfumed with aromatic notes. Nothing is off limits. Freshness, acidity, texture and temperature are probably elements that you’d find in an amuse bouche. But honestly, it really can be anything chefs fancy.

Chef Tham concludes: “Amuse bouche is like the trailer to a blockbuster. Let them entertain you.”