I’ve written about Thai food a couple of times on this blog. That’s because I adore Thai food and it’s my site, so I can write about what I like. Given that, I’ve been searching for an easy to follow guide on Thai dining etiquette. If you plan to visit Thailand and plan to eat in Thai restaurants or Thai households, you’d surely want to understand how Thai table etiquette differs from ours in the U.S. or in the U.K. And if you assumed it was just like Chinese dining etiquette and you could get by with “China for Dummies” or something like that, you’d be not only sorely mistaken, but displaying your cultural ignorance.
I figured the best way to find a good primer on Thai table manners the would be too look for a blog post by an actual Thailand native. I came across just such a post on a Thai food blog called The High Heel Gourmet. In her post Thai Eating Etiquette blogger Miranti Borvornsin lists out some of the major rules of Thai table etiquette in a simple DO’s versus DON’Ts fashion. 1 She also, quite helpfully I might add, rates each of them on what she called the Thai Richter Etiquette Scale of 1 through 5, with 5 being the worse if you do it when you shouldn’t, or don’t do it when you should.
We learn, among other things, when the Thais use chopsticks, and also, that they mostly eat with a fork and spoon, but not OFF the fork! So Thai people like spoons. My wife would love that, she likes to eat everything with a spoon, too. We might also tend to think that asking for chopsticks in Thailand would make us appear more cultured and open, but in fact, if they are not provided, we should not ask for them. Good to know!
Also similar to what you would find in restaurants in China, as opposed to Chinese restaurants in the U.S., the Thai restaurants serve food “family style.” They are placed at the center of the table so that everybody can reach them, and everything is meant to be shared. It’s okay, by the way, to ask your host, or whoever may be in charge of ordering (because they know what is good, perhaps) to ask them to include a certain food you would like to have. But it would not be just for you if it were ordered. Miranti includes some rules for how to serve yourself from the communal dishes.
Thai Family-Style Eating
In her book Thai Kitchen: Hot Thai Kitchen: Demystifying Thai Cuisine with Authentic Recipes to Make at Home, author Pailin Chongchitnant explains that there are some differences between Thai family-style eating and the family-style in the West as exemplified by Christmas dinner (or Thanksgiving dinner in the U.S.). In the West, all the food is placed in the middle of the table and everyone fills their plates with whatever they want to eat. If there is enough, people go back for seconds or third.
In Thailand, all the dishes are placed in the center of the table, but guests do not fill their plates with multiple courses. Each person takes a little bit of rice to start because every meal is eaten with rice. They take a little bit of food and eat it before taking a little bit more. This way, there will always be enough for everyone to get some of everything. And, the diners get to sample a dish before deciding if they want more of it. If the table is very large, as the meal goes on, the dishes are rearranged a few times so that everyone is able to reach everything. As in the West, if you can reach a dish, but the person next to you cannot, it is polite to ask them if they would like to be served some of the dish. I have also read that you should take food from the edges of the dish and work toward the middle.
Also, in general, serving others is a polite thing to do, and there are no formal rules as to who should serve whom. However, serving the elderly and guest is considered appropriate.
Dealing with Inedible Ingredients
If you have eaten at any authentic Thai restaurants, you will know that Thai cooking frequently includes ingredients that are not edible, or at least not pleasant to eat. Chunks of lemongrass are for flavor, for instance; you are not expected to chew them up. While many foo-food chefs trained in French cooking would go ballistic over “inedible” things in their dish, this is a personal hang-up that the Thai’s do not share. Just because you see a fish head in some soup, doesn’t mean you are expected to pop the whole thing in your mouth. But what do you do with the inedible bits without being rude? Miranti has you covered.
Thai People Eat Slowly
One rule I quite like, because I relate to it, is “Do eat slowly.” I myself tend to eat slowly and I am frequently still eating when most everybody else is done. I can get behind the concept of eating slowly as a point of etiquette! And guess what? It’s healthier, too. It turns out that eating slowly is given a TRE of 4 by Miranti, which means that eating very quickly would be a very bad breach of etiquette at the Thai table. And, if you eat too fast you might break another rule about dropping food from your plate onto the table.
Do Not be a Noisy Eater!
You know, in China, apparently, it is considered good manners to be a noisy eater. To slurp your soup, or make yum-yum sounds, or even to belch is not only acceptable, it is thought to show appreciation for the food. The Thai people do not share this point of etiquette. Noisy eating, much like here in the West, is frowned upon. In fact, Miranta rates it a 5, the very worst.
Social issues such as when to start eating, conversation, offering to pay, and other important social considerations are covered and there is a useful list of don’ts that further bring home some of the items listed in the DO’s. She also covers a lot of Thai etiquette myths like ‘don’t leave your chopsticks in the bowl,’ (the Thai don’t even eat rice out of a bowl, let alone with chopsticks), and other important misconceptions. There is also a quick lunch, and buffet section. Lest you think I’ve given too much away, there is tons more I haven’t mentioned, and you need to go read the article, linked above, for all the details. You will also find lots of great Thai recipes. These are obviously formal, and perhaps even somewhat ‘aristocratic’ rules, as written by someone who grew up with a bit of a silver-spoon in her mouth, but they should serve you well. One thing I do know, from my own experience, is that the Thai people are gracious and are not going to run you out of town on a rail if you screw up at the table.
Here is a quick list of Thai Table etiquette rules that may help:
- If you are provided a fork and a spoon, use the fork to help push food into the spoon, and use the spoon as the main eating utensil.
- When pouring a drink, always pour it inwards, towards the midline of your own body. For example, if you are pouring a drink with your right hand, pour it toward your left. Pouring “outwards” is pouring a drink for the deceased.
- Don’t stick anything in food and have it stick straight up. This is impolite. I don’t know why.
- Do NOT ask for chopsticks. Thai people rarely use them, and like us, it’s usually when eating Chinese food, and perhaps with noodle soups.
- If you’re going to use a toothpick at the table, make sure you politely cover your mouth. If your an American, you probably are not going to use a toothpick at the table (are you?)
- If you have multiple plates to deal with, don’t put a plate underneath the plate you’re eating from—similar to pouring drinks outward, this is serving the deceased. Otherwise, it’s okay to stack plates. American restaurants generally do not want you to stack plates.
- Borvornsin, Miranta. “Thai Eating Etiquette.” Thai Eating Etiquette. N.p., 17 Jan. 2013. Web. 06 Oct. 2014. <http://highheelgourmet.com/2013/01/17/thai-eating-etiquette/>.