How to Eat in Thailand

 | Tue 15 Jul 2014 19:59 ICT

In Thailand, food is very important. It takes up roughly 50 percent of the things we care about (alright, maybe not 50, but close enough), and food and food-sharing are inherent to Thai culture.

But to a non-Thai, the intricacies of how Thais eat might not be that obvious. This article is for those of you who have only recently set foot in the Land of Smiles, to those of you who have lived in Chiang Mai all your lives, and especially to those of you who may have been startled by our very ordinary, everyday customs about food.

At least, to us they seem ordinary…until you look back at them wearing a different pair of spectacles. They say you don’t tend to notice how strange a place really is unless you move away for some time. This is my experience as a Thai person looking back to the food culture in Chiang Mai after three years abroad in England. Of course, I’m not going to get into how you’d hold your teacup or how much milk you pour into said cup and which way you stir, because frankly, we Thais don’t take milk in our tea unless its sweet and cold and served with tapioca balls. But tea culture aside, my purpose here is to see if I could help you untwist your knickers, understand a bit more about Thai food culture, and tell you that it’ll all be fine in time!

We force-feed people.

It’s our way of being friendly. If you come in close enough contact with a Thai person, and by this I mean stepping over the line of being complete strangers, chances are that we’ll try to force-feed you at some point. You could be hanging out at a pub with some mates and strike up a conversation with a Thai chap, who then might start offering you some of his food. My advice? Say “Why yes, thank you!” and help yourself to some. You’re not being rude, and neither are you stealing anybody’s food, and we’re not being flirty or smarmy with you either. It’s just how things are, especially in an easygoing city like Chiang Mai. We won’t necessarily be offended if you don’t take up the offer, but we do expect you to say yes, so if you have any space in your stomach to speak of, just go for it!

Personally, I’ve spent the entirety of last year force-feeding members of a club which I was part of. In the beginning, the poor English folks were flabbergasted, to say the least, but I was not going to relent, and over time they got used to this oddity, and were fed and happy. Sometimes we Thais don’t understand why this doesn’t happen more often in other parts of the world. Having good food and sharing it is our definition of happy, after all. On that note, another tip: if you want to ingratiate yourself quickly to a group of Thais, just bring snacks!

Food is part of our greeting.

Once you get past the initial awkward stage of being acquaintances and randomly getting offered food, it only gets more intense from there onward. A colloquial, albeit traditional, greeting in Thai roughly translates as “Hello, have you eaten?” This is something you would say to somebody you know relatively well. The younger generations might not live by this rule, but there’s no guarantee the question won’t crop up in your conversation with them at some point. You could be stopping by at your Thai friend’s house, they’ll pop the question, and if you respond in the negative, chances are that you’ll be offered some light snacks in no time (yes, we stock up on these “snacks for guests” and they range from biscuits to pork scratchings). Arrive at meal time and there is absolutely no chance you’ll talk your way out of not joining the meal. We won’t even care if you’ve already eaten, because, really, “have some more!”

What’s ours is yours, what’s yours is ours.

Once you’ve no choice but to sit down at that dinner table, you’ll find, if you haven’t already, that there’s no such thing in Thailand as dishing up individually. This reiterates my emphasis on “sharing.” On a customary Thai lunch/dinner table (breakfast is a different matter), you will have your own portion of rice, and the other, more colourful dishes will be scattered about the centre of the table. Most likely, a serving spoon will be present in each dish, and what you do is serve yourself a bite-size portion of one or two dishes at a time – not more. You’ll find that you’ll have to put down your utensils to pick up the serving spoon rather often, but it’s an unspoken rule for us that serving yourself all you can eat right at the start of the meal would make you look like an unsociable git. (Of course, we don’t consciously entertain this thought and we aren’t seeking out to nitpick your table manners, so relax!)

There are plenty more baffling things about our food and food-sharing customs, so keep an eye out and you’ll find that they are very deeply ingrained into our everyday culture. You don’t tend to notice how particular these things are when you are from here, and it takes quite a lot of thinking to discern how normality in a place could be peculiarity in another.

But one thing is for sure: as much as the next Thai person does, I find food and food-sharing fascinating, not to mention delicious. And that is something I absolutely couldn’t and wouldn’t do without!