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Dining Thai-Style

Kasma Loha-unchit, January 2nd, 2011

Unlike the way many Westerners dine, with a large chunk of meat as the main feature on the dinner plate and a small amount of buttered or flavored rice on the side, the Thai diet (and that of most Southeast Asians) consists primarily of plain, unflavored steamed rice, eaten with tidbits of spicy and highly flavored side dishes. A few bite-size pieces of chicken or meat in a curry sauce or stir-fried with chillies and basil, a few spoonfuls of hot-and-sour soup flavored with various herbs, a bite or two of fried or steamed fish and a few helpings of stir-fried vegetables or raw vegies dipped in a hot shrimpy sauce—these are all it takes to help a Thai polish up a large plate of rice and be more than satisfied. Instead of having a little bit of rice to go with the meat, the Thai way is to have a little bit of meat to go with the rice.

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

Thai Feast

Ready to serve

There is no shortage of chicken, pork or beef in Thailand, but most Thai people prefer to eat more rice than meat. Meat sits heavily in the stomach and can make us sluggish following a meal as the body diverts much energy into digesting it, whereas rice satisfies our hunger without making us feel too heavy, and the spices and herbs of Thai cooking make us feel alive inside out. If you have found Thai food to be too spicy, try eating smaller amounts of the spicy foods with larger quantities of plain steamed rice.

Because Thai people prefer to eat off of plates rather than out of rice bowls as the Chinese and Japanese do, the primary eating utensils are a spoon and a fork. Chopsticks are not particularly practical for picking up tiny rice grains on a plate. Therefore, when you are eat at a Thai restaurant, don’t ask for chopsticks. Thais use chopsticks only when they are eating noodles, and only noodles which are served in a bowl, as in noodle shops operated by the ethnic Chinese.

In the past, Thai people ate with their hands without using implements. In rural areas, many farmers and villagers today still use their right-hand fingers to pick up food at mealtimes, and in the north and northeast, where people consume a different kind of rice called sticky rice, eating with the hand is perhaps the most practical way to proceed.

Three Thai Dishes

Three different dishes

The spoon and fork were first introduced by Western missionaries during the early 1800s. There is a story told of King Rama III of the present Chakri dynasty, whose curiosity about Western tableware prompted him to invite an American missionary and his wife to dinner in the palace so he could observe how they used all their intriguing implements. As international relations expanded, later kings adopted the European style of dining into the court. By the time the absolute monarchy ended in the 1930s, Western tableware had become so popular among the upper strata of society that one of the ruling field marshals decreed the spoon and fork as the nation’s official dining implements. The tablespoon has since become accepted as the primary eating implement, and the fork serves the secondary function of helping guide and push morsels of food onto the spoon. So, if one is right-handed, the spoon is held in the right hand and the fork in the left.

Considering the types of food that comprise a Thai meal, it is obvious why the spoon is the primary implement. A mound of rice is piled on the plate. Little bits of food are dished onto the rice, a spoonful at a time, with accompanying sauce. Both spoon and fork mix the bits of food and sauce with some rice, and then a mouthful portion is scooped up by the spoon with the help of the fork and brought to the mouth. This way all the rice grains on the plate, the bits and pieces of accompanying food and the drops of spicy-flavored sauces are easily picked up and eaten. There is no waste, no disrespect shown to the food itself—and no risk of pimples on the face! Some parents tell their children that if they clean their plates each meal, they will be blessed as adults with beautiful or handsome mates who will be dependable and good providers. But if the children are untidy and leave a mess of rice grains all over the table, floor and on their plates, they risk attracting mates covered with pimples, or worse yet, they may grow up with a pimple for every rice grain wasted on their own faces.

Gaeng Som

A bite at a time

The Thai way of dining is a family-style, eat-as-you-go, shared experience. The elder or most respected person at the table usually starts the meal, which normally consists of several non-rice dishes, usually about one dish per person plus one extra, served around rice. The more people there are, the greater the variety of dishes. There is no particular order in which the dishes are served, and this includes the soup.

The non-rice dishes are all set out on the table; they stay on the table through the meal and are not passed around. It is okay to reach over to spoon a little of this and that when desired, or if the table is long and you can’t reach, those next to you will help serve you. Dining becomes a joyful ceremony in which everyone at the table seems part of an organic whole rather than separate, unrelated individuals.

When dining, the non-rice food is spooned onto one’s plate a small helping at a time, enough for just one or two bites. A large portion of any dish is never taken at once in respect to others sharing the meal. It is regarded as bad manners to do so. When this serving is eaten, a little of something else is then spooned from another serving dish. After each bite, you decide what you feel like eating next, and when you are full, you simply stop. This is a way of nibble-eating; it is a fun way to eat. You become more present with the food, with yourself and your body, and with other people who are dining with you. As you pick and choose, you savor more of each bite than you would by just automatically eating what you had dished onto your plate from earlier in the meal. Also, your rice is kept relatively clean, as the juices from a previous bite of something do not alter the flavors of the present bite. This way, the variety of flavors can be preserved and appreciated. Also, overeating and wasting food are diminished as one does not take too much food on one’s plate at the beginning of the meal.

Serving Food

Serving a dish

Serving spoons are not often used. Traditional folk believe they separate and create distance among the people sharing the meal. Therefore, be sensitive in asking for a serving spoon (if you must) from your gracious hosts in a Thai village who have welcomed you into he intimacy of their home and accepted you as one of the family. The practice of eating out of the same dishes, of course, is gradually changing in urbanized areas in response to the hygienic concerns of modern-day living.

One of my American friends who spent some time in Thailand a few years ago was very much impressed by the way people served one another through the meal, always looking out for someone else’s needs before satisfying oneself. While growing up, I was taught to serve others around me the best of the foods from each serving dish. Mother always gave away the best mangoes from our trees, and in return she received the best of other things from our neighbors and friends. When we look after everyone else around us and offer them the best, we all gain—it is a win-win situation.

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, January 2011

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