Table manners can be an issue in social situations if you’re new to a country or a culture. Most Thais are forgiving (and entertained) if visitors are at least trying to be polite, but here are some pointers so when you “eat like a local”, it means more than that you can handle spicy foods!
Step away from the chopsticks
A major misconception, especially in the West, is that all Asians use chopsticks. We don’t. In Thailand, chopsticks are normally used for noodle dishes or in Chinese, Japanese, or Korean restaurants. Typically, a spoon and fork are the main utensils. The spoon goes in your dominant hand, and the fork is used to push food onto the spoon to create the perfect mouthful. No need to chase rice around your plate with a fork or chopsticks. Also, don’t expect to see a knife among the table setting since Thai dishes are normally prepared with bite-sized cuts of ingredients.
Know how to share properly
One of the joys of a Thai meal is that you get to share a variety of dishes with your companions, family style. While having a greater selection for your meal is terrific, Thais are very hygienic, so seeing you dig into the main bowl of “gaeng kiew wan” with the spoon that was just in your mouth may put them off their meal, or from eating with you again. So, refrain from using your own spoon or fork to scoop food from the centre dishes onto your plate. Serving spoons usually come with shared entrées, but if there isn’t one, ask for a “chon klang” (center spoon).
You want to make sure you have room to try everything, so only take a spoonful or two (remember, the serving spoon) from each entrée. You may want to keep your rice separated on your dish – plain rice is a good add to the mix in your spoon if you think it may be too spicy or to eat on its own if your last mouthful was a little too fiery for your taste. Also, keep in mind that there’s really no concept of “courses” in Thai meals. Dishes are often served as they’re ready, unless you request for something to come out first.
Pass the salt?
Salt and pepper are not condiments you’ll find at a typical Thai table. Some dishes have their own sauces you can add (with their own little serving spoon). The main condiment is “naam pla prik” (or some say “prik naam pla”). Either way, that’s fish sauce with chilis. With this, you can add saltiness or spiciness. Normally, just add a little to the section you’re working on. No need to sprinkle it all over your dish. You may find that you don’t need more than a few bites with it. And beware, fish sauce can be quite pungent, so try not to get any on you.
Keep the noise down
Another misconception is that eating noisily is how you show that you’re enjoying your meal. Not in Thailand. All those typical scoldings from childhood stand – chew with your mouth closed, cover your mouth if you must burp, don’t talk with your mouth full. This goes for utensil use. Try not to clang your spoon against your plate too much.
When in Rome…. (Or Bangkok)
Thais are known as easy going for a reason. We love to share our food and culture and are happy when others take an interest, so as I said at the beginning, as long as you are good natured and are trying your best, you’ll be given a lot of leeway for any missteps. Don’t worry – feel free to ask, or take a moment and watch what others are doing. But, no matter what, enjoy!