Carrying my plate, covered in sloppy Irish stew, from serving area to table was one of the most potentially dangerous things I had to do at school. There, Irish stew was of the brothy-with-big-chunks-of-potato type, rather than the thicker sort we had at home.
Spills, when the broth couldn’t be contained on the plate, ended up in shiny patches on these lino of the dining hall. Enough of this and you had areas as lethal as black ice. I didn’t understand why we put something this soupy on to a plate instead of into a bowl.
Eating out of bowls is hardly new. It’s what we ate broths, potages and stews from long before flat plates became the thing. No doubt plates – which ended up being elaborately patterned – seemed to be an improvement at the time, but to me they are more about show and less about suitability. Bowls can hold purées and food that’s made up of liquid with solid pieces of meat or vegetables. As long as you hold them steadily, bowls are much better at containing food than plates are.
Bowl food as a concept became popular more recently because it provided a solution for caterers cooking party food. At a fancy bash in 2008, I was served an endless array of small bowls containing Thai curry, risotto and noodles. This allowed guests to have lots of small tasters without looking for a table to sit at or clumsily balancing a plate while standing.
Then bowl food, as a type of dish, became a full-on trend in 2016. These bowls – with a base of grains on which you could fan chopped raw fish, slivers of avocado, shaved vegetables, seeds and, often, an egg – became associated with the wellness movement in food (they were often called Buddha bowls).
The contents were healthy. They looked wonderful because they held such a kaleidoscope of colours and made you feel good because you could see, at a glance, all the healthy things you were going to eat. Bowls also allowed the cook to create height, instead of spreading components out flat on a plate, giving the food elegance.
At home, I serve food in bowls more than on plates, not because they make food look better, or because I’m composing rainbows of healthy ingredients. They just seem sensible and I love the feeling they convey.
You can hold a bowl with both hands, you can cradle it. I still have a few café au lait bowls that I brought back from my first trip to France. I was so struck by how happy they made me feel at breakfast – as I sipped hot chocolate from them while warming my hands on their sides – that I had to buy some. Bowls, to me, are about care.
Most evenings I serve dinner in what would at one time have been called pasta bowls – broad and shallow without a rim. They’re perfect for curries (with a little moat of rice), risottos, pasta and any kind of braise. As we eat so much Asian and Italian food these days, they make more sense than plates. They can also be held in your lap in the corner of the sofa if the day has been so bad that you need to find solace not just in a warm bowl, but in soft cushions, too. I don’t always sanction food in front of the TV, but on a Friday night a bowl of dal and a dollop of chutney in front of a movie seems more perfect than any fancy restaurant meal.
This week’s dishes are for serving in bowls and eating with a spoon. They haven’t been chosen for their beauty but for their softness, their deliciousness and the fact that they’re undemanding to eat. They’re also perfect for Friday nights on the sofa.