The Art Of Grazing

I had four great parties to attend (and host) over the recent festive season, in Auckland. And with the Kiwi practice of ‘bringing a shared plate’ something that Singaporeans would call a ‘pot-luck’ dish, I decided to be adventurous and announced that I would bring a grazing platter as a starter.

Fascinated with the concept of grazing, I have discovered that you can create a visually stunning ‘gourmet’ platter, quite simply and effectively at home. All you have to do is to put the right ingredients together in the right combination, employ the right serving tools and follow some really simple and useful guidelines which I have shared below .. and voila!

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Experience from the four parties this season has taught me that the concept of a grazing platter is a great way to break the ice, especially if you have a room of people that don’t know each other well. Because of the nature of the platter and the fact that you have to come close to pick off it, it actually brings everyone together, around the table or a central area instead of having people wander off to different parts of the room and engage in separate conversations. As it is the first course to any meal, it also visually whets people’s appetites and tastebuds and quite often because it is first on the table, it almost always gets emptied with gusto. And that’s the impression you want to leave everyone with – that it was so-o-o-o gooo-ood!

Some quick tips to create a stunning grazing platter:

Decide on a theme

Depending on the size of the party and what the other starters are, decide if yours is going to be an all-cheese or a mixed meat and cheese platter. Then select the ingredients you buy, to suit your general theme.

A Cheese-only platter has as its staple at least 3 basic cheeses (preferably 2 hard and 1 soft). With this, you will serve up a menu of dried and fresh fruits (raisins, cranberries and apricots) combined with seedless grapes preferably red and green and a variety of whatever berries are in season. Add on a variety of sweet (candied walnuts) and salty nuts (cashews and almonds), plain and fancy crackers, Dips are optional but it is nice to have a flavourful savoury dip (a salmon and caviar cream) and a tangy sweet dip (ginger-marmalade chutney) or a nutty dip (vegan pistachio and cashew with sun-dried tomatoes) to make things interesting.

The Mixed Platter has a meat or fish component added on to the above.  If its meat  that you are going for, I recommend 3 different meats – prosciutto, a mild salami and a cured or smoked spicy chorizo – all thinly sliced are all winners to me. With a special occasion like Christmas, the Mixed Platter can look visually appealing, deliver that generous, wow factor and feed a fairly big party.

From Italian anti-pesto to Greek Mezze, Mediterranean, Spanish Tapas or North Indian – the themes are all up to you and what you think will best wow your guests. The important thing about a theme is to find a theme-specific dish  to anchor the platter and build the items that you choose around it, to support and create an edible story.

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The Right Tools

It’s true, presentation is everything and first impressions do count especially since the art of feasting, begins wth the eyes!

Invest in three types of basic boards to present your platter. A long wooden plank serves a large group of up to 25, a round 12 inch pizza style paddle  with a handle can feed about 15, a regular sized lazy susan also makes a good and larger option to a 12 inch paddle plus it has the advantage of being able to rotate. And if you can get a square or rectangular bread board, this also creates good options to feed smaller parties.

Build a small collection of empty glass food jars. Don’t collect standard sizes, instead make sure that they are in different shapes, sizes and heights. Consider also that the mouths of each of these jars will be wide enough so you can hold anything from breadsticks to carrot wedges. I like jam, honey or sauce bottles (labels soaked and stripped off).  I also save the amazing terracotta jars from French dessert shop Paul Lafayet, each time I buy one of their ready-packed desserts from the super-market. I often also buy interesting patterned or odd-shaped clay bowls when I travel or look for unusual sauce dishes that will add interest and highlight to whatever theme I have chosen for my platter.

A couple of quality fancy cheese knives (as those will be scrutinised and well-used on your platter) are also good investments along with a number of small-ish spoons that can be used to scoop out the dips onto crackers.

The pleasure of grazing is having a small pick either stuck into the food you serve, or available in a jar so guests can grab one and pick at what they want. Invest in a few rustic looking mini skewers, metal picks or mini dessert forks along with small dainty cocktail size serving dishes or trays for your guests to enjoy the graze.

Tuck or fold a small napkin along with your palm sized serving plates and mini dessert forks or fancy picks. Hand these out once everyone has a drink in hand, and you are ready to start the party.

Quality rather than quantity

It is so tempting to think quantity when you are buying to fill a grazing platter – 3 packets of this and 4 packets of that … I have learnt that you should go quality rather than quantity.

Whilst it is important to have enough, interesting items and a good variety does matter and lends an artisan feel to your creation.


Here’s a shopping list of what went into this platter which I organised for 20 guests.

  • Grapes and Carrot sticks and Blueberries (1 plunket of red and black seedless grapes, loose anti-oxidant rich blueberries and carrot sticks)
  • Cheeses (5 types altogether: 3 soft creamy cheeses – I picked a Double-Cream Camberbert, Regular Brie and a Creamy Blue. There were also 2 hard cheese – I picked a Dutch Maasdam Cheese which looks just like the ones you see in the Tom and Jerry cartoons with the holes in them – they are lovely and firm and you can shred or cube them easily, just like I did with the Gouda)
  • Meats (3 types – shredded Proscuitto, slices of Mild Salami and thinly-sliced Spicy Smoked Chorizo)
  • Crackers (3 types – Textured Oat and Walnut with Cranberry crackers and Cracked Pepper Wafers. To make it appetising, I also bought a variety of cheese and herb sticks which I stood up in a bottle jar)
  • Nuts (2 types – Salted chilli mixed nuts, Sweet mix of raw almonds, walnuts, cashews and cranberries)
  • Dips – A lovely Salmon and Caviar cream fresh from the Auckland Fish Market.


Handmake your signs

The key to the success of your platter is to make sure that it has a few indisputably interesting quality items that you highlight with signs so that they also become positive conversation points and ice breaker topics.

Show some pride and effort for your creation. Bring attention to these items by creating some signs to highlight them.  The concept is the same as what you see in a fancy restaurant menu. It’s all in the copy. You automatically want to try it out of curiosity when you read that it’s not just fish but ‘line-caught Atlantic Wild Salmon’ and instead of mushrooms, these are ‘hand-picked first-crop Truffles’. Remember it does pay to put the extra into the ordinary and don’t leave your guests guessing at what they are picking at.

Variety and texture

A platter should not be static, one dimensional and blah. There are a few rules when arranging your platter.

img_1343For example place your cheeses at the ends of a round cheese board or near an edge of a square platter so that people can access them easily to cut off a wedge or pick a cube of what they want.  Cube the hard cheese or crumble it into chunky pieces. Look to give everything a sense of depth and texture whilst at the same time controlling the portion sizes on your platter.

Have things laid out in according to what makes sense – put the bland flatbread or breadsticks next to a tangy or savoury dip, the cucumber or carrot sticks next to a something spicy or flavourful. Have the blue cheese next to the pear and walnuts so that people don’t have to search for what are natural food pairings. Look to wow with colour and contrast.

My next graze challenge …

With the Lunar New Year around the corner, my next personal challenge is a themed grazing platter that incorporates an Asian theme with nibbles like kwa-chi, nuts, new year goodies like peanut and walnut cookies, my favourite pineapple tarts, bak-kwa (roasted pork), pork floss, various sweets and savouries, mandarins, pomelos and flowers especially pink peonies (my personal favs).

If you have been inspired and want to join in the challenge – send me pictures of what you have created and I will be happy to share them on our facebook page or instagram.

In the meantime, a happy new year to all and watch this space – for shots of my next little home-made effort – from the heart and hearth of my kitchen to yours!








3 Hidden Foodie Gems of Hanoi

Since I have already written about the street food in Hanoi and its coffee joints, I might as well add a third — of three miscellaneous eateries all worth a visit.

The first and my favourite is Kem Trang Tien (35 Trang Tien), the oldest ice cream shop in Hanoi, and still going strong. After a hair-raising cyclo ride, weaving a hair’s breath away from oncoming cars, Trang, our trusty guide, stopped us at this local institution for a treat.

Located near the Opera House and a short trot from the Sofitel Metropole Hotel, it has little aesthetics to speak of and plenty of empty, sometimes greasy, open space. Two counters inexplicably far apart stood in the corners of this odd looking shop, one selling ice cream lollies on a stick, and another soft serve ice cream on a cone.

Trang explained that the shop was designed so that customers could drive all the way into the shop and up to the counter on the scooters and motor bikes, and buy the ice cream without once having to get off their vehicles. Hence the weird empty spaces within. What’s surprising too is that the shop becomes especially busy in winter when people enjoy the ice cream the most.

Kem Trang Tien makes their own ice creams in local Vietnamese flavours and sells nothing but. The ice lollies were recommended over the soft serve. Forget the chocolate flavour and go for the taro or coconut, or better yet, the glutinous rice ice cream or the mung bean. The rice ice cream made use of newly harvest grains, which exuded a subtle, fresh, green flavour with a slight, pleasing stickiness to it; the mung bean was lovely too – softly nutty, subtle and aromatic. Really good.

Another local favourite is Xoi Yen (35 Nguyen Huu Huan), a perpetually busy coffee shop on a street corner that is festooned with a great tangle of overhead electric cables. There is no enticing facade to speak of; it is entirely dominated by a messy open kitchen from where xoi xeo, its famous dish of glutinous turmeric rice, mung beans and fried shallots is prepared.

You’ll find the locals eating at the low tables along the walkway, but there is seating upstairs too if you want a more leisurely meal. Little English is spoken here, so it’s best to have a local friend help you along. As for the food, simple as it sounds, it is very tasty; add on an order of chicken or pork if you are particularly hungry. Locals flock here for breakfast as well as a quick lunch, and is quite an institution.

The final recommendation on my list of three is Koto Restaurant (59 Van Mieu Street). This can be accused of being touristy, but it deserves mention for the cause it supports — it is a not-for-profit restaurant that acts as a hospitality school for disadvantaged young Vietnamese.

Located near the Temple of Literature, the four-storey restaurant was crowded with mainly expats and tourists, but enjoyed ourselves here, with good food and very decent, inexpensive cocktails. We ordered the Vietnamese set menu and had a veritable feast — the banana flower and chicken salad, spring rolls, banana leaf grilled fish, and sweet and sour clam soup with pineapples and tomatoes were memorable. We added an order of banh xeo as well (truly delightful), and a stream of decently done classic cocktails, including two glasses of most enjoyable margarita.

Walking Food Tour of Hanoi’s Old Quarter

Despite the organised chaos that prevails on its streets and walkways, Hanoi is a charming, fascinating, delightful city. I am constantly amazed by how you can cross the scooter-laden streets at a steady pace and the wall of vehicles bearing down on you — nevermind that you’re using the zebra crossing — will fan out like a swarm of swallows, then skirt and meander past you like a well-rehearsed dance, allowing you to reach the other side of the road with limbs and life intact. What’s more dangerous to me are the great vats of boiling soup stubbornly straddling the narrow walkways, with low stools and tables scattered nearby, threatening to trip you over if you so much as take your eyes off the pavement for a moment to snap a shot.

It was to these street side food stalls in the Old Quarter that we went to taste and explore on a recent trip to Hanoi. Our private tour with Hanoi Voyages included a walking food tour on our first night, led by our guide Trang Ta. It was a dizzy, three-hour trek to a number of food stalls and small restaurants – I have lost count – to taste various dishes. A plate here, and nibble there all came together nicely to form a very filling and stimulating feast.

Banh xeo, at restaurant Mr Bay Mien Tay

First, we popped in to Mr Bay Mien Tay (79 Hang Bac), a buzzy little restaurant well known among the locals for its excellent banh xeo. Cooked at the front as you order, it was a sizzling crisp-edged egg pancake filled with prawns and beansprouts, eaten with fresh herbs and rolled in rice paper.

A dessert stall next door caught our eye, run by this cheerful young lady. We bought some of her rice mochi balls filled with peanuts. Sounds quite familiar indeed, but it also carried a sprinkling of coconut shreds which is a little different to how we eat it back home.

Then it was on to another stop for salad. This eatery (38 Bat Dan Road) could do with a bit of a clean up, and touch of aesthetics; but the beef jerky salad with fish sauce dressing — the only thing on the menu — which they sold was really delectable. With the jerky, there were green papaya, cucumbers, carrots, coriander and mint, beansprouts, and some peanuts which gave light, bright flavours, and crunchy textures. According to Trang, people would drop into this eatery early in the evening for a pre-dinner salad before heading home or moving on to their dinner venue.

Then it was on to Countryside Restaurant (29 Bat Dan Road) for two unusual dishes. First, fried snakehead fish with dill, beansprouts, crisp fried onions which you had to assemble yourself, wrapping it in rice paper with coriander, mint and peanuts. The fish was just nicely cooked and moist, lifted by the aromatics, resulting in a complex marriage of flavours in each mouthful, and a delightful mix of textures. The other was a juicy, hearty dish of fried frogs legs served with peppery betel leaf. It was certainly not among the usual suspects in Vietnamese cuisine and absolutely more-ish.

Snakehead fish with dill and rice noodles at Countryside Restaurant

We were to move on to a famous pho shop (49 Bat Dan Road) down the same street but the queues were ridiculously long, snaking down the road. So Trang decided to give it a miss and move us on to other options which Hanoi’s Old Quarter offered. As an alternative, she brought us to another pho shop but unfortunately, it wasn’t that great.

Our last stop made a fine finale — a well loved hole-in-the-wall dessert stall (95 Hang Bac) run by a cheerful aunty. It was packed, but we managed to find some plastic stools, squeezed them into the nearest empty spot we could find – nevermind that it was right in the middle of the entrance way — and ordered up her icy specialties. Without a table, we ate our desserts off a metal tray which we perched on our laps.

The hole in the wall dessert shop

They are quite similar to what we have at home in Singapore, but yet a little different — such as a creme caramel with black glutinous rice (like our pulut hitam) which was quite good, but I’m no fan of creme caramel in general. Surprisingly, as unexciting as the black bean soup with coconut milk sounded, it was excellent. The soy ice cream with glutinous rice was also most enjoyable. That brought us to the end of the food tour. By the time we meandered back to our hotel, it was close to 11pm.

At this point, I must give a shout out for Hanoi Voyages (pronounced with French flair – “voy-A-es”) who organised our entire four-day private tour, of which this evening was only one part. The company is run by a young staff who are pretty intuitive about what we were looking for. Beyond just taking us to these places to eat, Trang, who spoke fluent English, also filled us in on the background about the different foods, and told us about the individual eateries’ histories, and local food and cafe culture. She was also great fun to be with. Best of all, Hanoi Voyages specialises only in private tours and pride themselves for bringing guests off the beaten track, which means that for some part of your tour at least, you will be assured of a more unique Hanoi experience.

(This trip was my own personal holiday, paid fully by myself. Recommendations here are not paid for, simply that we want to share the great finds.)