Do You Really Know How to Eat Thai Food?

My mother's divine Nam Prik Platoo (chili dip with mackerel) with her sumptuous vegetables

My mother’s divine Nam Prik Platoo (chili dip with mackerel) with her sumptuous vegetables

Being Thai and meeting so many foreigners from work and traveling, I have received countless utterance; “I LOVE Thai food!” But when the food is served, trust me; I don’t recall one single foreigner eating Thai food the correct way. And by saying ‘correct way’ I don’t simply mean the right etiquette to please my cultural ego, but there is logic in the Thai dining way to increase the pleasure and appreciation of Thai-food palate.

First before exposing the way to eat Thai food, let me tell the basic of Thai culinary. First, Thai dishes are designed to be shared. Secondly, a good Thai meal should consist of multiple dishes with all different flavors, textures, types of meat, levels of ‘moisture’; meaning from a dry dish like deep fried to a more moist like salad and stirred fry to gravy-like curries to liquid broth. The variation that’s complete in all aspects is a key to enjoy the richness of Thai cuisine. It is a serious task for a Thai chef or housewife to design a holistic combination of the dishes for one Thai meal. And a meal without a complete coverage of flavor, texture, etc. is not considered a well-regarded Thai experience. This is why the meal is to be shared – so everybody can enjoy every palate from all dished combined.

With those 2 philosophies in mind, now foreigners will understand why the way they have been eating Thai food needs to be changed. Here’s how to savor the next Thai meal, if one wants to love Thai food even more.
1. Eat with a spoon. The reason is simple: to enjoy all the sauce and isn’t easier to pick up tiny grains of rice with a spoon than a fork? I get annoyed seeing people eating Thai food with knives and forks. It looks awkward and simply not elegant chasing rice around the dish with a fork. In addition, meat in Thai dishes is almost always cut in bite size so there is no need to use a knife. I wouldn’t go too far now how to hold and maneuver a fork and a spoon. It is even an art and etiquette in its own right that I learned from my boarding school. For now if people eat Thai food with a spoon, that will already be an increase in their dining experience.
2. Eat multiple dishes, a little bit of everything. Remember? Thai food is to be shared, in order to complete the plethora of flavors and textures. So, order more than one dish to share with your meal buddies. Best, discuss and agree the dishes together before ordering as the Thais do.
3. Eat almost everything with rice. Thai food is intense in flavors and the neutrality of rice is to balance, or in fact, to enhance the dishes by making it more mellow and rounded. Even soups are eaten with rice. The soup is not designed to warm you up (you know we don’t need that in Thailand), nor to act as an appetizer. It is simply a dish to be enjoyed for its own worth, or to break the intensity of other dishes in between. The only exception of dishes that can be eaten without rice is appetizer and salad which are served altogether along with other dishes. (Real Thai meal is not served by course, but every dish will be served all at once.) So, you need to know which dishes are pre-course or the main in order to know whether you shall munch it alone or with rice in the same bite.
4. But….., put one type of food at a time on your plate, and finish it one by one before going on to the next. Do NOT put everything on your plate at the beginning then finish the whole plate before refilling like buffet manner. You begin by putting rice on your plate as much as you think you will consume for the whole meal. That is the way to control the meal portion. Then you put one or two spoonful of the first dish on, or beside a portion of rice on your plate. Finish that. (My school teacher would also add; keep the rest of your rice clean from contamination of the previous dish.) Then add one or two more spoons of the next dish, enjoy and go on to next dishes. There is no sequence how to take each dish. You can go back and forth and rotate a few rounds, and repeat the dish you like as many times as you want. The idea is only to savor the flavor of each dish without mixing it with other dishes. If you still feel like eating more after finishing the rice, refill the rice with the portion you will be happy to finish, then rotate a bit of one dish at a time again.

It is different, isn’t it? And this may even be a surprise to some foreigners. As I said; this is not etiquette and Thai people wouldn’t mind how you eat Thai food. (As long as you don’t gulp the soup loudly as you SHOULD do for Japanese food.) This is an insight for serious Thai-food lovers to enjoy our cuisine even more. Be a connoisseur and tell me you love Thai food!

Sharing many dishes

Sharing many dishes

We love river prawns with spicy nampla prik

We love river prawns with spicy nampla prik

3 comments on “Do You Really Know How to Eat Thai Food?

  1. Patrick says:

    Thanks for this post. I knew most parts of it as I have the advantage to be able to eat with a family when in Thailand.

    It is different for us farangs as our eating habits are different if you look how food is served in our restaurants and homes. A regular plate normally contains of meat, vegetable and rice or pasta. Then in most Thai restaurants we are unaware on how to order. Yes, true we often discussed what each of us would like and then ordered all this dishes and shared the meal.

    My “problem” if you wanna say so.. is that often I am actually happy with just one dish as I am quite a simple eater and happy like that. Which on the other side gave me a nice feedback that I am very easy to have and do not stress people with strange habits or expectations.

    One thing I always did is to try everything that was given to me to eat in order to see if I like it or not so much and over the years my appreciation for squid has remarkably grown into really liking a well grilled squid with naam-chim. I am also fine with crickets and gaeng kai mot-daeng.

    My biggest discovery in Thailand is actually all the many different vegetables I had not known before and the custom to eat little leaves of lettuce and herbs with the dishes as well as raw snake beans. As somebody from Europe you normally don’t think of eating these without any kind of salad-sauce.

    Thai cuisine indeed is one of the best experiences to make !🙂

    • fahbeyondsky says:

      If you have to eat alone like when we go for a quick lunch break, it makes sense to order a one dish. There are many delicious single dishes. So, nothing is wrong with that. But for a gathering event, sharing many dishes is a way to go. When I did research and analysis on my consultation for a Thai restaurant, the cultural decode I concluded was that; Thai meal time is indeed a “sharing moment”; meaning it is time to share stories, friendship, bonding, as well as the meal.
      Thanks for your thought exchange.🙂

  2. Very educational – I had no idea! The Global Recipe Project at crowdedearthkitchen.com is seeking authentic Thai recipes. I hope you will consider participating! 🙂

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