10 Greatest Starters of All Time REVEALED (‘suggested’)
Good old stuff is food. Though specifically intended as slop to keep you from starving to death, it’s always managed to be upgraded to the delicate whims of the human palate. Even as far back as Roman times, Emperor Nero was known for his natural sense of entitlement – sending his men off into the perilous mountains demanding that they return with snow mixed with fruit pulp and honey. And around a similar time, oyster farms were being established in Whitstable specifically to feed endlessly picky people something a little bit different to the usual fare – which, when you think about it, is basically your starter and dessert covered, all from around the same era.
In the years since, as you’d expect, what and how we eat has been repeatedly honed, poked, prodded, assessed and reassessed, and divided into strict categories based on our taste buds (‘sweet’, ‘savoury’, ‘sour’, ‘weird’, ‘umami’, ‘shit’, ‘no I don’t like it’ ‘yes that’s nice’). We’ve decided what constitutes ‘a meal’, we’ve decided what things should go together on our plate – though you do get the odd madman who extols the virtue of dipping your fries into your milkshake – and we’ve decided the order in which we should eat them.
Some of the greatest culinary inventions are intended as starters, something to invigorate the appetite before the main event. Not so long ago, these would invariably be a choice between soup, indecipherable pâté, or (somehow) a glass of fruit juice. But over the last couple of decades or so, the options have become multifold, and after lots of research/eating, we now know these to be the greatest starters of all time, listed in reverse order, from tenth best to best best…
Shout out to the ones that didn’t quite make it: spring rolls, smoked salmon, hummus, samosas, French Onion Soup, pâté, scallops, prawn puree, and our dear old friend, Mr Duck Pancakes.
10. Caesar Salad – like all great inventions this one came about via a mixture of human fuck up and general happenstance. The human fuck up: failing to predict customer demand. The general happenstance: deciding to feed them whatever was in the kitchen. In this case, an improvised table-side concoction of romaine lettuce, croutons, lemon juice, parmesan cheese, anchovies, garlic, and a few other ingredients designed to stop people wanting to have sex with you. The results: all hail!
9. Buffalo Wings – in 1964, The Beatles famously landed at JFK airport as part of their US invasion, but what’s lesser-reported (but no less influential) from that year was the colliding of chicken with a vinegary hot sauce that was happening just down the road in Buffalo. Now, we’re not saying the two things are linked, but ask yourself this: can it really be a coincidence that Paul McCartney later created a band called Wings? Yes, granted, it can entirely be a coincidence.
8. Oysters – it’s been a curious journey up and down the class system for everyone’s favourite mollusc. For a while there, the oyster was a pub snack, something Victorians liked to enjoy with a pint of stout – the oysteriness of the oyster complimenting the stoutiness of the stout (or something like that). But in more recent times they moved closer towards decadence/ostentation, to the point where half a dozen to kick things off will make you feel like you own the planet.
7. Nachos – possibly the most babyish thing on the list – it’s essentially a plate of crisps, and one that might, in a worst case scenario, find your dining partner excusing themselves to the toilet to slip their knickers back on and call a cab. We’re not talking sophistication here. But the rewards, if executed correctly with the right amount of everything – cheese, guac, salsa, sour cream, jalepenos – will always outweigh the risk.
6. Steak Tartare – uncooked mince, onions, capers, Worcestershire Sauce, a raw egg – feels like someone might have forgotten to put the oven on, doesn’t it? And quite rightly, because apparently that’s exactly what happened, a newbie chef misunderstood how to do a Hamburg Steak (the popular precursor to the hamburger) and this perceived atrocity arrived at the table instead. Now adored universally by the wealthy and rightly so. Though in America, they’ve added bread and christened it a “cannibal sandwich” which makes it sound fucking horrible.
5. Sesame Prawn Toast – the ultimate fusion food, this takes minced prawns from the East and pairs them with toast from the West. Chuck in sesame seeds purportedly originating from Egypt or Ethiopia depending on who you believe, and you’ve got a delightful starter uniting three whole continents. Now deep fry the fucker.
4. Bruschetta – Italian restaurants started popping up in the 1800s, but it wasn’t until the good old 1950s, the Boomer years, that they really started exploding into view. Suddenly you couldn’t move for people having a post-war leg-over and searching for the finer things in life – one of which, turns out, can be found straddling the twin moons of ‘garlic bread’ and ‘tomato sandwich’.
3. Prawn Cocktail – it had to be, really. A bona fide classic, a British staple since the 1960s that drifts in and out of fashion. All a bit delightfully kitsch, some credit Fanny Craddock with coming up with it, while others insist that, actually, it was the brainchild of the legendary gourmand Auguste Escoffier. Which is a curious boast really, especially when you consider that Marie Rose sauce is literally as sophisticated as mixing ketchup with mayo.
2. Papaya Salad – surely the greatest salad of all time, Som Tam (aka Papaya Salad) has been flying off the shelves since the late 1700s, though it only became popularised in Western culture much more recently – partly thanks, you suspect, to posh gap year students returning home with pierced noses, an entirely new world view, and a bizarre craving for unripened papayas with all the trimmings (lime, chilli, fish sauce, palm sugar, dried shrimp etc).
1. Calamari – easy to get wrong. Too rubbery, too bleurgh, too battery, too salty, too small or too large (what is this, a tadpole? What is this, a Kraken?). But done right, this is the greatest gift the Mediterranean has ever bestowed upon us. And that includes the endless coastlines, the leathery old people, and the various islands that have been turned into high streets.