Eating Thai Food

Sticky rice is eaten with the fingers
Sticky rice is eaten with the fingers

Eating food is such an important activity here in Thailand that you had better brush up on your table manners before you come. Erm…Thai table manners that is. Forget about stiffly starched napkins, enough cutlery tools to hold up an airplane and all sorts of long forgotten, quirky Victorian mannerisms at the table; eating in Thailand is quite different. None the less, Thais have their own etiquette at meal times.

OK, so you’ve been taught all sorts of posh habits, like eating with your mouth closed, never using your fork as a spoon and tipping your soup bowl away from you, well throw that all out the kitchen window, the locals are a little uncouth, what!

Thai table manners are more practical and mostly aimed at civil communal eating. Many mannerisms go back to a previous era when meals were collectively shared; food was the most important gift and gratefully received.

Firstly, forget about ordering yourself a whopping great steak and devouring it single-handedly. In Thailand all dishes are shared. For starters, if you dine with a group of Thais, you’ll have little chance to order the bovine of your choice, for that important task is left up to the senior women in the group. A skilled host will ensure that all palates are catered for, ordering fish or seafood, pork, shrimp, chicken and several vegetarian dishes that encompass a full range of tastes. Spicy, sweet, salty and bitter will all be represented, often all in one dish – the perennial favourite¬†tom yum gung. And don’t expect them to come all at once. The amazing thing about dining out with a large group of Thais is that the food just keeps coming and coming.

So, that brings us to the next point, don’t tuck in like you’ve just crossed the Sahara. Thais eat slowly, enjoy the food, conversations, laughter and company. Each of you will be given a plate of rice and a soup bowl. Someone near you will ladle some soup into a bowl and you help yourself to the spread. But wait! Don’t go shovelling a mountain of your favourite curry onto you plate, there’ll be none left for the others. The polite way to do it is to take as much as you can eat in one or two mouthfuls. Savour it and then move onto another flavour. Thais like to pick at food, helping themselves to the dishes one spoon at a time. Take your time and try everything.

Now for the next problem. There are no knives on the table. Well, this is because all the food as been diced before cooking, pretty smart, eh? Traditionally, Thais ate with their hands, and in the rural areas or in some specialist restaurants this still occurs, especially when eating sticky rice and Isaan food. Nowadays they’re far more refined and use a fork and spoon, but you might also find yourself using your mitts to eat with in some places in Thailand.

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When eating, always wait for the host, usually the biggest noodle at the table (and the one whose going to pick up the entire tab) to invite you to help yourself before tucking in. When you’re finished there’s no need to place your eating irons together, but leaving food on your plate may indicate you didn’t find the food tasty, which is always a big concern in Thailand. Remember, everything here is far spicier than you’re used to so take tiny mouthfuls of new dishes.

So, when do you get to use chopsticks? Well, these are a Chinese import, so they are only used to eat noodles (and Chinese food of course), which can be tricky seeing as soft dripping noodles aren’t the easiest things to grasp between two sticks; luckily they give you a small spoon to help.

A King, a fork and spoon
King Chulalongkorn the Great (Rama V) is largely credited with modernising Thailand in the latter half of the nineteenth century; he was educated by the an Englishwoman, courted Western diplomates and leaders and travelled abroad. One morning he ordered his kitchen to cook a multi-course Western meal and invited the British consul over, sat him down and asked him to ‘eat as they do in Europe’ so that he could observe their table ‘skills’. After everything was done, the King decided he had no use for a knife when eating Thai food (for it was all already chopped up), but found the fork and spoon handy and so begun the use of cutlery in Thailand. Nowadays everyone uses the fork to push the food onto the spoon (in your right hand), which then goes in your mouth. The fork, however, never does.

Finally, the bill. This is always left for the wealthiest or most important person to pick up. If that happens to be you, then take it as a compliment. A meal is cheap in Thailand, even if there were 10 mouths to feed, it won’t break the bank. They aren’t being rude; this is simply the way Thais gain respect by looking after the stomachs of the less fortunate. However, there should never be a fuss over who pays; the bill should always be discreetly taken care of.

Other than that, there’s no need to go to finishing school to survive a Thai dinner. Everyone is relaxed and friendly at the table; after all food is something to be shared and enjoyed.

Further reading…