Wen’s been bugging me to do a post on street food for the newbie, but before you learn to run you need to learn to walk (though admittedly for some of your timid tummies it’s probably best you are adept at running before you try eating food from a street cart in Thailand). The less generous of you might consider the entire purpose of this post to be nothing more than an excuse to post some hot male flesh with food pix, but I’m good with that. Either way it’s a quick and easy article that will allow me to get back to my true passion in life: hot male flesh. Or food. Or eating hot male flesh.
We all – or most of us – have been taught polite dinner table manners; that it’s rude to rest your elbows on the table, that you shouldn’t chew with your mouth open, and for the more advanced among us, which fork or spoon to use with which course. My parents also taught me not to hide my unwanted lima beans in my brothers’ glass of milk. But I think that one was a specific rule directed toward me.
The table manners we learned as children and hopefully refined as young adults generally serve us well. Until you wind up somewhere where those rules fly out the window to be replaced by a set of rules completely foreign to you. In some countries burping after a meal is a sign that you were both well fed and enjoyed the meal. My parents scolded me for that one too. But watching the lima bean/milk mixture spurt out of my brothers’ nose when I let a loud belch rip was always worth the reprimand.
I learned early when I moved to Hawaii that it is considered both rude and bad luck to stick your chopsticks into your rice like you are planting a flag, a rule shared by many Asian cultures. Among the Inuit people of Canada, farting after a meal is an expression of thanks and appreciation (whereas the same gesture in Mexico is just considered an unavoidable part of life). Someone told me that it’s rude in France to use a knife to cut the lettuce in your salad. It seems every country or area of the world has their own little idiosyncrasies when it comes to what is and what is not considered to be polite while dining. And Thailand is no exception.
Short of belching after a meal while mumbling something about the royal family, Thais will generally forgive you for poor manners at the dining table. They consider Westerners much the same as a small child and rather than take offense, excuse us for being the ignorant fools that we are. It really isn’t a bad rep to have, you can get away with murder (actually you can get away with murder in Thailand, but that’s a different post). For those of you who would prefer to blend in rather than stand out in your farang-ness, here are a few tips on the intricacies of dining in Thailand, though it’s more about how than why your fellow diners are laughing at you:
Thai people eat constantly, or so it seems. The norm here is numerous small meals throughout the day rather than the three square meals you are probably used to. Not a bad routine to adopt on your visit; you will always be full, you’ll get to try more dishes, and you won’t cause a minor traffic jam of locals gawking at the weird American whose table is laden with enough food to feed a small family of twelve for the week. The downside? As a fellow traveller once said: “One fart and you’re hungry again.”
Okay, so pretend you have some cultural sense: Do not ask for chopsticks to eat Thai cuisine. Only a few Thai dishes are eaten with chopsticks, in which case they’ll be provided. The standard utensils in Thailand are a fork and a spoon.
Most Thai dining is done family style. That means all of the dishes are placed in the middle of the table and everyone helps themselves. It’s about sharing, not about being your piggy little self. So to do it right, you and your mate and/or friends can all order a dish you like, but when they are served everyone gets to eat off all of the dishes rather than hog the cashew chicken to themselves. And don’t get annoyed if all the dishes you order don’t come at the same time. Since Thais usually share everything they order, it doesn’t matter to them which dish is delivered to the table first.
There’s a bit more to dining in Thailand than just sharing: First, the big spoon at your table setting. It’s not there so you can shovel larger portions into your mouth. And just because you can fit lots of food on it doesn’t mean you should. Use it to scoop a portion of food off the main dishes with the idea of taking a spoonful of rice, topping it with a spoonful of one of the other dishes and then eating each dish one by one in this combination. In other words, you are eating a portion of each dish off your plate before adding more food to your plate, not filling it like you are at an all you can eat buffet (unless you are at an all you can eat buffet).
Next if you really want to show you know what you’re doing, master the art of using a fork. It is not a utensil used to spear solid pieces of food off your plate; use your fork to push food onto your spoon (not your serving spoon, dummy – you’re eating now, not putting food on your plate). The pushing motion should be toward yourself, if you really want to get this right. Then use the spoon to insert the food in your mouth. This will keep you from inserting your foot in your mouth instead.
If you are dining at a food court and really want to gross out the local you are dining with, ignore that rice cooker full of water when you are grabbing your utensils. Thais religiously rinse their utensils off in this water as a nod toward hygienic dining. As a Westerner, you know that a kettle of cold water that has been sitting out all day has little to do with fighting germs, so feel free to ignore it.
Many Thais consider grabbing the last piece of food off of a serving plate to be bad luck. And it is for the person who was hoping to claim that little morsel as their own. An old custom that is dying away is for the person who does take the last piece to make a wish on behalf of someone else – that morphs your misfortune into good luck ‘cuz you are thinking of someone else’s well-being for a change.
Lastly, at the end of the meal, using a toothpick to pry out the pieces of food that got stuck between your teeth is not considered rude. Not holding a hand in front of the action is. I think this is because Thais eat tiny portions of food and what you spear onto the end of your toothpick will look like another meal to them. But that’s just a guess. Of course if you are like many visitors to the Kingdom and dine nightly at McDonalds and/or KFC, you can ignore all of these dining rules and just be happy that corporate America has made the entire world a little slice of home away from home on your behalf.
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