How to eat like a Thai Person
Eating Thai style at first may be confusing, complicated and different. If you’re unsure how to do something, just ask, they’ll be happy to help. Thai people are for the most part pretty forgiving, so if you make a mistake, you’ll probably be the one who is most upset. In other words, don’t stress when you’re eating with Thais. Thais enjoy meals, and stressing out will make you enjoy yours less. So, relax and enjoy the food!
Use a Fork and Spoon.
Thais eat most dishes with a fork and spoon. Knives are left in the kitchen to cut things into bite sized pieces before cooking, and never used to cut things at the table. The spoon is held in the dominant hand, and the fork is held in the other. Use the fork to push food into the spoon to eat. The only time Thais use chopsticks is when eating Chinese noodle dishes, such as noodle soup. So if you’re miffed because your waiter didn’t give you chopsticks, it’s more than likely you’re not supposed to eat with them anyway!
Rice is the base of a Thai meal. When you order your food at a restaurant, you also have to order rice, it doesn’t come automatically. Generally Thais will fill their spoons with some rice and a bit of one of the dishes, so each bite contains a bit of a dish and a bit of rice. If a dish is really spicy, you may want the ratio of rice on your spoon to be higher. Sticky rice, which is eaten in the North and North East is usually eaten with your hands. Break off a small bit from the bunch (and re-cover right away or it will dry out and get hard), roll it up in your hand and dip it into the dish to soak up the flavor. If you are uncomfortable eating with your hands, just break off a bite size piece with your fingers and drop it into your plate, and use your spoon/fork to eat it with the rest of the food. It’s quite difficult to break apart sticky rice using utensils — your hands are best for this!
How Many Dishes?
The loose rule of thumb is at least one per person. The more people eating, the more you can order! Thais try to balance out the meal, ordering one spicy soup, one yum, one vegetable dish, one meat or fish dish, one curry, etc. If you eat alone, generally you eat a ‘one-dish’ meal, maybe a fried noodle dish, or a curry on rice. If two are eating, maybe you’ll order a soup, a curry and a vegetable. If more, you order more!
Ordering & Sharing Dishes.
Thais always eat ‘family style’, ordering many dishes which sit in the center of the table that everyone shares. Typically one or two people order for the group. If someone really wants to eat some dish in particular, they’ll pipe up while ordering, so that dish is added to the table. Usually ordering is a loud and hectic ordeal involving the waiter’s opinions, people’s opinions who have eaten at this particular place before, etc. You’ll notice that in Thailand, waiters will seat you, then stand next to the table and hover until you’ve ordered. This isn’t rude here, it’s just the way things are done. They’re there to answer any questions about the menu or to recommend what’s cooked best at that restaurant.
How much to take?
When the food comes, dump some rice on your plate, and take only one or two spoonfuls at a time from the center dish, and eat them with the rice before proceeding onto the next dish you wish to try. Do not pile your plate with a little of everything at once, and absolutely don’t pile your plate and then don’t eat it. When finished with your meal, your personal dish should be clean, unless you were given too much rice. It should NOT have huge piles of food on it which you took from the main dishes and didn’t eat. Essentially what you’re doing is taking from the main dish food which other people could eat, then not eating it. This is probably the only real ‘rude’ thing you could blunder onto while eating with Thais.
Keep your rice clean.
Unless you’re eating a curry-over-rice dish, your rice should stay clean. Mix a bit of each dish with a bit of each rice by the spoonful, then eat. In other words, don’t pile 10 dishes on top of your rice and mix. Thais like to savor each dish on it’s own, and not mix the flavors. If you mix them onto your rice, the flavors will mix.
When in nicer restaurants dishes will arrive with a serving spoon. Use this to spoon out your spoon-size servings onto your dish. Most often no serving spoon is provided, you use your own spoon. Make sure it’s clean first before you stick it into the main serving dish. Nothing worse than bits of your rice & other dishes left behind. Yuck.
Soup is usually served piping hot with fire underneath. Be careful not to burn your hand or your tongue on it! If no individual bowls are provided, just eat out of the main soup bowl with your spoon. Again, make sure your spoon is shiny clean before sticking it into the soup. Just take a spoonful, and bring it directly to your mouth. You can also mix it with your rice if you want.
Leave the Dishes Where They Are.
Thais don’t pass dishes around. It’s not rude to reach and grab something. If it’s too far, you can ask to have someone pass it, but generally dishes stay put on the table. The dishes at the far end of the table may end up trading places with each other 1/2 way through the meal, but they don’t play ‘musical chairs’ like they do in the West. Don’t offer plates to people while eating, if they want to eat something, they’ll get it themselves. Thais are a bit confused by this behavior. They like to chose for themselves what they want to eat, and what order to eat it in.
Dishes come when they’re done.
Unlike the West, where it’s rude to ‘keep one waiting’, and all dishes are served at once, in Thailand they are served once they come off the wok. Since you’re sharing anyway, it doesn’t matter if they come out all at once, and why should they sit in the kitchen getting cold? On the other hand, often orders are messed up, and dishes are forgotten. If you really were looking forward to a certain dish, and it didn’t come, just remind the waiter and they’ll make it. If not, don’t worry, it happens a lot. Check the bill at the end of the meal to see if it was written down or not. If so, tell the waiter it didn’t come and they’ll take it off!
In the West, food is brought out in a certain order: Appetizer, Main Dish, Dessert. In Thailand, even if you order something from an ‘appetizer’ section of the menu, it’ll come out when it’s done, which could be 1/2 way through the meal. There are really only two courses in a Thai meal: The food, and the dessert. In fact, I’d say 95% of Thai meals consist of one course, since dessert is rarely eaten, and when it’s eaten, it’s usually more as a snack.
How to Eat Noodle Soup.
Noodle soup is eaten in a much different way. Each person gets their own bowl. First season your bowl of noodles to your liking by adding chili powder, sugar, fish sauce, vinegar, etc. You use chopsticks in your dominant hand, and a spoon in the other. Grab a small bit of noodles and pull them out of the soup, all the way up until they’re out of the water. Then, carefully drop them slowly onto your spoon. Then fill the rest of the spoon up with the broth and eat. Do not eat Thai noodle soup ‘Chinese’ style by grabbing a bunch of noodles and shoving them into your mouth with the chopsticks. While this is more efficient, it’s considered a bit rude.
A lot of Thai dishes come with ‘side vegetables’. You can eat them with that dish or not. It’s up to you. Naam Prik, on the other hand, is eaten by taking the vegetable onto your plate, and dumping some naam prik on top, then eating it.
Many dishes come with naam jim, or dipping sauce. The most common being prik naam plaa, chilis in fish sauce. This is essentially the equivalent to putting salt on the table in Western restaurants. If you find your dish to not be salty enough, add a few drops of prik naam plaa onto the dish.
Shelled fish are rarely served with crackers. They usually are pre-smashed a bit for you. If you can’t get the meat out, have the server crack it for you. Fish are served with the head and tail on, usually fried, grilled or steamed whole, which is no doubt the best way to eat them. Many people agree that the cheeks are the best part, so don’t be afraid. Shrimp are served with the head, tail, and usually shell on. Unless deep fried, take the shell off. If deep fried, you can eat the shell too, if you want. But it’s not rude to take it off! Many Thais take the head of the shrimp off, suck the insides and then discard it, eat the body meat by holding the tail, and then dump the tail too.
Beer, Water and Ice
If you order beer, it will come with ice. Thais drink beer with ice. Also, even if you order three beers, many times what this means is “beer for three people”. In other words, once you finish your glass, more beer will magically appear…and of course you’ll be charged. Keep an eye on that little tray next to your table to see how many beers you’ve actually drank, you may lose track since your glass magically keeps re-filling. This is the same for water.
In Thailand, tipping isn’t really a big deal. I would say, if you eat at a fancy restaurant, and your bill is B270, leave B300. I generally round up 20-40 baht, depending on how much the bill is. If there is a service charge (only in tourist areas!), I will not leave anything. Don’t tip for street food.
Snacks and Street Food
Thais are always snacking, always eating. There is food available on almost every street corner in Thailand. Many snack-style street foods are served in a plastic bag. If you’re going to eat it right away, they’ll dump any dipping sauce directly on top, and hand you a skewer to eat with. If you want to take it home, or eat later, they’ll give you the sauce in a small bag. It’s totally normal to eat and walk, sit, etc, anywhere in Thailand. Don’t feel weird about eating on the street, it’s one of the best parts about this country!
You’ll often come across pre-made food in silver trays, to be eaten with rice. These are quite common at food courts in malls, for example. This is what Thais call ‘ahaan taad’ or ‘tray food’. It’s meant to be eaten alone, like ‘one-dish meals’. When you’re ready to order, you get a plate or rice, and point to the 1, 2 or 3 different things you want to eat. The server will put all the things on the rice for you, careful not to mix them too much. If you order a watery curry, gaeng paa for example, the server will usually put that in a small bowl for you. The price increases with each thing you want. It’s usually around 20-30 baht a plate.
And finally, for all of those who are not quite used to the spice levels! Eating spicy takes practice. The more you eat, the easier and less spicy it feels. Start little, and build your way up to Thai levels. If a dish is too spicy, eat it with more rice. Or take a few bites of plain rice. Drinking water or beer will just make it worse, pushing the chili oil around your mouth. If eating at home, try a few sips of milk when your tongue is on fire. And finally, the best way to sooth a chili-damaged tongue is a nice coconut milk based dessert at the end of the meal! Try something with ice too, perhaps Tub Tim Grob.