--- The Cook Up with Adam Liaw airs weeknights on SBS Food at 7.00pm and 10.00pm or stream it free on SBS On Demand. ---
It's a phenomenon that is quite horrifying to some cultures and completely expected in others, but being asked to 'bring a plate' is fairly common in Australia.
Generally, the host is not asking guests to bring a bare plate (and perhaps your own cutlery?). They're usually not even asking guests to bring a dinner plate full of food, either. At most Aussie gatherings, the term means to bring some kind of dish to share with the larger party.
This is not common practise around the world.
Bringing a plate is "pretty weird"
"If we are inviting to our homes, [Chinese] don’t normally ask guests to bring a plate of food" says Frank Shek, head chef of China Doll restaurant in Sydney's Wooloomooloo, whose parents are both from Hong Kong. "We are the host and the way we extend and practice hospitality means the guests need only turn up and everything will be taken care of including extras to take home.
"To turn up with a plate of food is pretty weird and could be seen as poor social etiquette as if to say the host’s skill at cooking may not be up to scratch," concludes Shek.
Not so in Australia, where adding 'bring a plate' to the end of an invite is fairly commonplace. Be warned, however, as the phrase does mean different things in different areas of Australia.
Bring the meat, but not the chair
In some, the term is used to indicate that you need to bring your own meat, presumably to add to the barbecue. Generally in this scenario, the host provides all the side dishes and dessert, but guests bring something to throw on the barbie.
Get the recipe for these spicy gochujang baby back ribs here.
This has its own etiquette that it pays to be aware of. Are you expected to share the meat you bring to the gathering, or do you get to keep your own offering to yourself? Knowing the answer may help you decide whether the plate you bring is a grass-fed, dry-aged Tomahawk or a kilo of Woolies snags.
According to user Moirclan on a PomzinOz forum, in north Queensland 'bring a plate' definitely means bring your meat, and is often accompanied by 'BYO drinks' as well.
"Although, I was once invited to a barbie and it said BYO, bring a plate and bring your own chair," they mentioned. "I told her why don't I just stay at home and think of you while I'm eating!!!!"
More bring a plate recipes for the barbie
This Syrian kabab is made from lamb mince and served on roasted tomatoes. Usually made on a charcoal barbecue, you can make a relatively simple version in a frying pan at home.
Sprinkled with trout roe and drizzled with a superb lemon myrtle butter, river trout is a mild fish with soft flesh, perfect baked whole or on the barbie.
And certainly not the main event
In most areas of the country, however, 'bring a plate' means something to eat that everyone can share. Whether that's a side dish like a salad, a dessert, or a full-blown casserole really depends on what the host is planning.
This needs another gentle caution, however, because asking a guest to bring something that feels like the 'main event' is potentially stretching the friendship.
Find the recipe for this cheeky crowd-pleaser here.
"As the 'gourmet' in my circle, I've for years endured people asking me to bring dishes that are either a lot of work or so elaborate it's hard to keep them attractive/stable," says a chowhound forum user. "But these dishes were always part of a larger meal, so I'd comply."
Incidentally, that particular forum was called 'Horrible Host: Invited to a Dinner Party, and then asked to bring DINNER!!!' And, just so you know, being asked to bring along a lasagne to someone's gathering seems to disgruntle the forums the most.
Dishes that are wonderful, but it's complicated
Iranians love to cook their rice in baking dishes to create a crisp layer at the base, which is then tipped upside down onto a serving plate for everyone to dig in.
It’s hard to imagine an easier dessert than this. Vietnamese coffee is known for its characteristic fragrance which pairs well with the mascarpone cream.
Bring the crockery too?
It's also important to think about how any dish you're going to bring is going to be served. Bringing a soup to a party where the host is unable to produce enough bowls and/or mugs and/or glasses (you can see how desperate things are becoming for the soup), is simply not a good idea. And this is before we've even given thought to the spoon situation...
Find the recipe for this chicken and vegetable party warmer here.
If you possibly can manage it, a particularly welcome guest might bring along the vessels and cutlery along with the soup. 'Bring a bowl', so to speak. Which is all starting to become problematic, as you question 'am I the guest, or am I the host?'. Even thought the soup was your idea. Even then.
In all, unless specifically requested by the host, bringing something like soup is just going to complicate the whole 'bring a plate' thing.
But just in case you have plenty of bowls/spoons/nerve
This broccoli soup is quite indulgent with butter and cream for a thicker consistency, served with sourdough croutons topped with a herby seaweed butter.
The day after a roast chicken dinner, this is the perfect soup to use up any leftovers - and those root veg calling out to me from the crisper before they pass their use-by date!
It's all just lazy hosting anyway
Which brings us to the other complicated thing about bringing plates: do we resent our party host just a little bit for copping out on the food preparation?
Food writer, cook and food coach Kate Gibbs thinks it is. "You're not really asking them to bring a plate, you're delegating your duties as host, so you may as well be honest about it," she tells SBS Food.
Don't give up on sharing a pav, get the recipe here.
"For the host, bring a plate can end up being a culinary mishmash in which you end up with all of the washing up and none of the thanks," says Gibbs. "So I never see the appeal. Better to get people to bring a drink, whether it's kombucha, rose or gin. Make something of a drinks table with clean glasses set up and a large ice bucket for sparkling things - then do the food yourself."
This particularly makes sense in today's climate. "During a pandemic, the last thing any of us want is a smorgasbord filled with food made in kitchens we can't inspect by hands we haven't seen sanitised," says Gibbs.
Tips on bringing your plate to the party unharmed
Plate or gift?
Another thing in support is that asking guests to bring a plate is merely an extension on what they want to do anyway. In just about every culture on earth, if you're invited to someone's home for a meal, you're going to bring something.
Secure your welcome with the recipe for these top-notch caramels here.
"If it is a festive gathering then we may buy some fresh fruit to bring along for the host’s family," says Shek. "Or if there are elderly present , we may pick up some herbal tonics or health promoting products as a gesture of goodwill."
Shek grew up in Dundee Scotland, where the gesture of a gift is also commonplace. If not quite the same. "We’re more likely to turn up with a heavily laden trolley after a trip to the liquor store," Shek laughs. "Fruit is far too healthy and might get scoffed at. And the receipt of a carton of ginseng extract might be construed as suggesting that your personal health prospects are dwindling and we can sense them."
For Gibbs, the best possible 'bring a plate' to bring is good cheese - which is really a gift in disguise.
"When I'm asked to bring a plate I beeline for the dish I brought with me, or the one dish that is impossible to get wrong and always has the longest queues," she says. "The one dish that is quickly destroyed by famished guests who know it's the best 'plate' on the table: the cheese."
Bring a cheese plate, or just something cheesy
This bitter salad adds hits of sweetness and creaminess from grapefruit slices and blue cheese. You’ll need a domestic blowtorch for this recipe.
In Sardinia, this casual stack of flatbreads, tomato sauce and cheese is known as pane frattau and is a fantastic way to make use of bits and pieces of Sardinia’s famous flatbread – pane carasau.
Ask the host, of course
In all, to be absolutely sure you're rocking up with the right dish and the right etiquette, it's safest to simply ask the host what 'plate' you can bring. Kate says that in order to secure a good communal banquet, it pays for the host to be very specific here.
"Hosts should delegate plates to the people in their closer circles, and only those who can actually cook," she says. "And be specific. Ask them to make the green goddess pasta salad from the NY Times, or send them a link to your favourite orzo, goats cheese and farro salad."
That way, your host can keep track of what everyone is bringing, so the party feast doesn't end up consisting of seven potato salads and a bag of chips.
Roasted sweet potato lends itself perfectly to dips, and the tahini adds a creamy texture and nutty flavour, excellent consumed with toasted Turkish bread.
Muhammara is an easy Middle Eastern dip made with crushed pieces of fried Lebanese bread, walnuts, capsicum and spices.
A novel method for a traditional biscuit, the shortbread dough is rolled into logs then cut in rounds and baked, with the exterior rolled in sugar and the tops sprinkled with salt flakes.
The Ligurian city of Genova is the home of true pesto Genovese made with basil, salt, oil, garlic and pine nuts.
A beautiful lemon and olive-oil cake that's moist, full of flavour and topped with delightful flowers and rosemary.
This pie originated in Ohio in America's Midwest, crafted by the Shaker community. Meyer lemons - with a thinner and less tart skin - are traditionally used, as the whole citrus is used in this recipe.
Adam Liaw's fried version of Greek spanakorizo is absolutely delicious, and very simple to make.
Mark Humphries walks us through his take on a Singapore-namesake noodle classic which originated in Hong Kong, inspired by the Indian-Chinese influence of Singapore's cuisine.
This is a quick and easy side set to complement any robust main dish with its zesty flavours.