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A side dish is essentially any food served as an accompaniment to a main course. Beyond this basic definition, the exact nature of a side dish can vary widely, ranging from simple steamed vegetables to elaborate casseroles. In addition to diversifying the flavors of a meal, side dishes also sometimes perform the function of soaking up sauces and gravies. Restaurants often offer a choice of side dishes when a main course is ordered, and the available sides usually conform to the restaurant’s prevailing type of cuisine. Many families enjoy certain side dishes only during a particular holiday.
The exact nature of a side dish can vary widely. Dishes may be as simple as a steamed vegetable or a basket of bread rolls, or as elaborate as chicken liver mousse or chilled pea soup topped with crème fraiche and edible flowers. Both home cooks and restaurants often pair main courses with one or two side dishes in order to “fill out” a meal as well as to provide pleasing flavor contrasts.
In some cases, a side dish not only tastes pleasant, but also performs the practical function of serving as a kind of “sponge” which soaks up sauces and gravies. Indian main dishes, for instance, often consist of meats, vegetables, and cheeses which have been cooked in thick, spicy sauces. Such dishes are often served with both rice and a soft, flat bread called naan. The rice collects sauce, making it easier to pick up forkfuls or handfuls of the main dish, and the naan can be used to “mop up” any sauce which remains on one’s plate after the main dish has been eaten.
Restaurants often offer a choice of one or more side dishes when a main course is ordered. Usually, the sides on offer conform to the restaurant’s prevailing cuisine type. For instance, barbecue restaurants often offer traditional Southern side dishes like corn pudding and biscuits. Casual American restaurants commonly offer potato-based sides, such as French fries or baked potatoes.
Many families enjoy certain side dishes only during a particular holiday season. For instance, candied yams are found on many American tables only at Thanksgiving or Christmas. An Iranian side dish called samanu, which is made from wheat flour and sprouted wheat, is generally prepared only during the New Year’s celebration, known as Nowruz.
Chicken liver mousse? Eeeewww. Sorry, no thank you. I've heard of pate being served as an appetizer or hors d'oeuvre, but never as a side. That's enough to turn your stomach.
I think of side dishes as being vegetables or similar served alongside the main dish. It's common for the sides to be simple if the main dish is rich or complex. For instance, a rich pork loin might be served with a side of roasted broccoli or a salad, so the diner won't be overwhelmed with rich, fatty foods.
The tricky part of the side dish is to make sure it's ready at the same time as the main entree. It's frustrating when the side dishes are ready, while the main dish still has 15 minutes to cook. Getting everything ready at the same time is an art of meal planning.