Samui Wining & Dining
At Thai Tables

What to do (and what not to do) when it’s time to eat!

What to do (and what not to do) when it’s time to eat!For many it comes as a shock. If it’s your first time here, you’ll be surprised. Even if you’ve been coming here a while, it keeps on happening. The thing is – Thailand seems to be so very normal on first sight. There are huge tower blocks, skyscrapers, and busy eight-lane highways congested with shiny new cars. Everyone’s texting on their smartphones or watching TV. But then you start to see the differences.

It might be that the Thais are deeply religious – quite the opposite to most Western nations. Or that there’s a hundred little social rules over here that you don’t have back home. Many of these you might never get to know about. But the one that you just can’t avoid is the way the Thai people eat their food.

This is actually a complex issue, with all sorts of social and historical causes and effects – it’s not merely a different attitude, although that’s the way it might seem at first. For example, due to Thailand having had very little contact with the West, spoons and forks never made it to the dining table until relatively recent years. And, for similar reasons, nor did the ‘normal’ Western idea of each person having their own plate of food, or the concept of a progression of different courses.

In fact, to an observer from outer space, it would probably seem that eating meals in Western nations is all about possession and selfishness, with each person protecting his own plate of food – yet in Thailand the food is placed in the centre of the table for everyone to share and eat at their own pace.

But what’s not generally realised is that that same alien, looking down on an affluent 18th century European household would have seen a very different picture. For many centuries it had been customary to present at least three different ‘courses’ at a dinner. But at that time a course consisted of anything between five and twenty-five dishes on the table at the same time. In one course, soups, meat or fish dishes, side dishes and pastries might be placed on the table all at once. Unfortunately this meant that by the time the guests finished their soup the other food had to be eaten cold. And so gradually, over the years, this approach was slimmed down until it reached the one-course-one-dish that we know today.

Typically, a Thai meal consists of a combination of what is considered a harmonious balance; elements that are salty, sweet, sour, and spicy. And it’s generally in the cooler part of the day, in the evening after the work has finished, that a family, or a group of friends, will come together around a table to eat. This is the time when you’ll really notice the differences in cultural style. One big bowl of rice will appear on the table for all to use. Then there’ll be a variety of supplementary dishes to go with this, usually a variation on the theme of meat and/or fish dishes, plus vegetables, a noodle dish, and probably also soup. And all of these dishes will be placed together, centrally, for all to share.

Over the centuries, particularly with the Chinese influence, Thai food traditionally has been cut and diced into small pieces before it’s cooked and served to the table. That’s the reason you’ll never see a knife on a Thai dinner table; there’s just no need for one. And, for the odd occasion where something needs to be divided up (pieces of fish, for instance) then the side of a spoon serves just as well.

It seems quite straight forward, doesn’t it? But, as with every culture everywhere, there’s a particular creed that goes with this, and in particular with the process of sharing. Rice will be the first item served, and it’s traditional for the youngest person present to take the bowl and serve a couple of spoonsful to each person, before serving themselves last. (If there are a lot of people at the table, then pass the bowl to the next young person to continue serving.)

Then, when the rest of the dishes arrive, always make sure that after you take what you want, you then offer the dish to the people on either side of you before putting it back on the table.

And, while you’re at it, always use the serving spoon that’s supplied with each main dish, not your own personal spoon – and remember to only take food from the side of the plate, never plunge the spoon into the middle!

It goes on! Never monopolise just one dish, even if it’s your favourite. And don’t stir a dish around to pick out the good bits for yourself. Certainly don’t pile your plate high: take just a couple of spoonsful of any one dish, and never more than three different selections on your plate at once.

There are dozens of other rules here, (whole books have been written about it!) but these are certainly some of the main ones. Of course, if you’re dining with a group of Western friends, it won’t really matter. But if you’ve been invited out by Thai friends, then you really should be aware of what to do – at Thai tables!


Rob De Wet


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