Garnishes might seem like decoration tossed on the side of a plate as an afterthought, but they play a significant role in the diner's experience of food. Usually consisting of an edible component, garnishes brighten the plate, give a clue to the flavor of the meal, complement the taste of the dish or fill empty space on the plate. Garnishes can take many forms depending on the food they are decorating. Herbs, berries, chopped fruit, sauces or vegetable bits are possible garnishes for foods.
You experience food with your eyes before tasting it, and the garnish adds a spot of color for your eyes to feast on before the taste touches your tongue or the smell reaches your nose. Garnishes add a spot of color to foods, especially monochromatic ones. Imagine how bland a poached fish fillet and steamed rice on a white plate looks without a bright sprig of parsley or lemon wedge. Even the simplest of garnishes will make a dish appear more appetizing than the same food without garnishing.
Garnishes enhance the flavor of some dishes. Lemon wedges served with seafood not only add a yellow color to the plate, but the diner can use the juice from the lemon to flavor the food. A mint sprig on top of a fruit dessert lightly infuses the dish with the herb's refreshing flavor. This is why it is important to choose garnishes that complement the flavors of the food they are served with.
Some plates look empty, even after the food has been arranged. Garnishes can fill in the empty spaces on a plate, giving the illusion of an abundant dish. This trick is used to surround the serving plates on buffet tables or at salad bars by surrounding the dishes with garnishes of parsley or ice sculptures. A small piece of pale cheesecake in the middle of a large dessert plate appears meager, but decorating the plate with swirls of raspberry or chocolate sauce makes the same portion look more generous. Though the amount of food does not change, the perception of it does just by adding a garnish.
Some dishes are not readily identifiable just by looking at the food. For instance, it can be difficult to determine if you have a bowl of savory soup of pureed carrots or a sweet dessert soup of pumpkin just by appearance. Both dishes are deep orange in color and thick in texture. Adding a carrot curl on top of carrot soup or a sprinkling of brown sugar and a swirl of cream on a sweet pumpkin soup can help the diner identify what he is about to enjoy.