Thai Eating EtiquettePosted: January 17, 2013
I’m back from my Australia trip, but I feel like I left my head dangling Down Under. So while I’m trying to recover from a mild vertigo symptom I’m having that’s keeping me from my kitchen, instead of giving you some more of Sydney or Melbourne restaurant reports (which require me to look through many pictures of which I shouldn’t be doing right now), I will blog about Thai dining etiquette. Because December and January are the most pleasant months to visit Thailand, some of my friends are heading over there and requested that I teach them the unique mealtime etiquette of my native country.
Explaining it in storyline form is difficult for me, mostly because I grew up eating with Thai etiquette and probably still follow it here in the US, so I can’t really tell you step by step. The best I can do is spell out the “Do’s and Don’ts”. I’ve rated each of them on what I call the Thai Richter Etiquette scale (TRE) of 1 through 5, 5 being the most egregious.
1) Do eat with your spoon and not your fork; the spoon in your right hand, fork is in your left. Use the fork to push food onto your spoon and put the spoon in your mouth. (TRE 2)
Although it’s not absolutely wrong to stab your fork into the middle of meatball and eat it right off the fork, it’s too tacky to do at a formal dinner. It’s shows an obvious lack of table manners at the same level as putting a knife in your mouth would be for Europeans. The Thais would hold the meatball down with their fork (because the meatball might bounce out of the plate when you try to cut it) while using the side of their spoon to cut the meatball to a bite size, and then would scoop the bite-sized chunk of meatball in the spoon, then eat off the spoon.
Thais mainly eat everything with a fork and spoon. When you go to the countryside, they might give you just a spoon–a short one too!
2) Do place the spoon and fork together on your finished plate at the 6:30 position as a sign that you are done eating. This is the sign that the wait staff will be looking for and will take your dirty plate away as soon as they see it. (TRE 1)
3) Do use chopsticks to eat noodles if they’re provided, but don’t ask for them if they’re not present. (TRE 3)
4) ALWAYS share your food (except lobster, which I refuse to share with my husband. All of a sudden, I learned to be an American!) Whatever you order at a Thai restaurant is for the whole table to share, unless you are at a quick lunch place, where that food will be for each individual. How can you tell? The clue is “rice”. If the rice is ordered in a big bowl or in a rice-serving container, then the foods will come family style that everybody will share. If they don’t order rice then read the “At Lunch” section below. The dishes that are served family style, or what some would call “communal” style, will be placed at the center of the table so everyone can have access to them. (TRE 4)
5) Do tell someone who’s ordering for the table what you would like to eat. It might be that the person is the host, or the senior, or the menu isn’t in English, or the person has been at the restaurant before and knows what’s good there. Just make sure that you are not at an event that is hosted by someone else and they already have the meal pre-arranged. Then you should ask that person who took over the ordering politely, “Can you please add —whatever whatever— to the order?” (TRE 2)
6) Do serve yourself using the serving spoon, not your own spoon or fork, but take only small portions from each dish so there’s enough to go around. I would suggest no more than a few bites or a few spoonfuls of any dish. (TRE 5)
7) Do take food from the side of the serving plate and not from the center. (TRE 4)
8) Do take only the food your intend to eat. If you are not sure what it is then just take a spoonful sample first. All the foods will be circled back to you if you want more later. (TRE 1)
9) Do turn down food that you don’t eat. If you don’t eat spicy food, animal’s internal organs or skin and they were offered to you, politely turn down the offer. When it comes to food, you can be straightforward with the Thais, telling them your preference. They understand and are willing to accommodate you. (TRE 2)
10) Do help your neighbors with the food serving, making sure that people around you get some of the food before you pass on the serving dish. (TRE 3)
11) Do separate the pieces of spices, skin, fat, bones, etc. that you don’t eat and leave them on your plate or in a bowl provided by the restaurant to collect trash. This bowl usually is put on the table, just as in many seafood restaurants here. (TRE 2)
Included in many dishes you may find stalks of lemongrass, pieces of torn kaffir lime leaves, slices or chunks of galangal root, chunks of cilantro root, or chicken, pork or fish bones, fish heads and other inedible parts. These are not intended for you to consume. They’re there to add flavor to the soup or the meat, so feel free to pick them out. The skin of chicken, pork or fish is another story. The Thai love them, so if you don’t eat them you can leave them on the serving plate, but read #33 first. Try your best not to take them onto your plate and then discard them, because someone else might want them and they can’t pick through the garbage bowl or your bowl. My husband does that all the time and my friends always give grievous looks at the morsel, and probably think that my husband is wasteful or doesn’t know any better. (I think it’s both!)
12) Do eat slowly. Thais like to spend a lot of time over meals, exchanging conversation with families and friends. Mealtime is a leisure time and should not be rushed. My grandmother always called me on this when I wanted to finish my meal fast and go play. (TRE 4)
13) Do eat sticky rice by rolling it into a ball with your fingers, while picking up a piece of other food with your fingers in your right hand. Only use the tip of your fingers, no more than two knuckles from the tip, to touch foods. Normally when you eat food in this manner you will get a bowl of water at the end to wash your hands. (TRE 1)
14) Do make sure that you don’t drop food on the table, especially from your own plate. There is a Thai word, pronounced “Whan Na”, which means “scattering the rice grains”, used to describe the action of a person who eats and lets food, especially rice, fall around the sides of their plate. (TRE 5)
Whan Na is actually the action of the real farmer throwing grains of rice around to spout on the rice field. This used to be my husband’s nickname among my friends and my cousins’ kids in Thailand. The server would lift his plate after he finished his meal and right there on the table would be a ring of rice where his plate was. I have to warn you that the plate that you would have in front of you is a personal plate, and normally is about the size of a salad plate, not a full-sized dinner plate. So you will have to operate on much smaller real estate for your meal, but remember, you’re taking small portions of everything.
15) Do spit bones, fat, herbs, etc. out of your mouth into a napkin, then wrap and hide it underneath your plate or add it to the trash bowl on the table, or under the table if they are available. If napkins aren’t available then cover your mouth with your left hand, spit the bone out on your spoon and place it in the trash bowl unless it’s not available then place the piece at the far corner of your plate and operate as if that piece is a pile of dirt (don’t let the food that you will put in your mouth next ever touch it…ewwwww) We don’t put things that came out of our mouth back on our plate unless you absolutely have to, and we never let people see anything come out of our mouth, so cover it up during the whole process. (TRE 3)
16) Do eat as quiet as possible. It’s not a good manners to make noise eating by chewing too loud, making crunching sounds from crispy food, etc. You should be heard only by your words and not a munching sound. (TRE 5)
17) Do finish everything on your plate (excluding the parts that aren’t edible), especially rice and scrape your plate clean (quietly of course), scooping up all your bits and pieces of food and finishing them, and pushing all the garbage to one side. See also #40 (TRE 4)
18) Do wait to be invited to start eating if you see the “Senior” present at the table. (TRE 5)
A Senior can be someone older than you (5 years+), the host, your boss, or someone in a higher rank or social position. You show your respect by waiting for the senior person to invite everyone to start the meal. If you happen to sit nearby them, usually at the head of the table, then make sure that the senior gets access to every dish first by offering them the food before you serve it to yourself. If the meal is among a group of friends, then it’s more casual and you don’t need to wait and can start eating when the first plate is served.
19) Do serve the rice to everyone around you if you are the youngest. Rice will be the first item served. The person with the least seniority would be appointed to distribute it to everyone at the table. If the dining table seats more than 6 people and you are the youngest among the group then you serve the rice to everyone around you and pass the rice serving bowl to the second youngest person. (TRE 2)
This is quite automatic to me. I don’t even think about it while I do it, and didn’t think about it while I wrote this blog. I just happened to discuss the draft of this blog with my sister, just to confirm the Thai Richter Etiquette scale with her. Then she added this. Normally the Thais would not expect the foreigners to know or do it but if you do, you would easily impress them.
20) Do discuss business if the host starts the conversation topic. If you are the host yourself, wait until you see that your guests are at least three quarters finished. Usually the clue is to wait until the savory dishes are nearly finished, and people are slowing down on serving themselves. You will get more attention that way. (TRE 3)
Even though it may be a business lunch or dinner, it’s very bad manners to get to the business part at the beginning of the meal, since Thai people love to enjoy their food. Food is not just fuel to the Thai, but also their pride, culture and satisfaction. No one can argue that the Thais have this art down to the smallest details. Hence they don’t want to rush through the meal, and business conversation during this early time isn’t welcome. You can start by letting people introduce themselves and talk about their family, the foods on the table, the weather, your travel, small talk only until their bellies are full.
21) If you want to use a toothpick, do cover your mouth with one hand or a piece of napkin at all times. (TRE 5)
22) Do offer to pay for at least your portion of the meal. (TRE 4)
If you have been invited to the dinner, most of the time the host will take care of the bill, especially when the host is the senior person, but it’s nice to offer to pay. If you are the senior person then you should pay for the whole meal. This is general manners just in the city; I’m not talking about the country tradition or on special occasions.
23) Do offer to contribute, even though someone else has agreed to pick up the bill for the whole meal, but don’t make a scene. Just offer once and if it is denied then thank the person, and then you can try to pick up the bill the next time. (TRE 4)
24) Do thank the host for the meal. (TRE 5)
25) Do not ask for a pair of chopsticks if they aren’t provided. The Thais only use chopsticks to eat noodles that are served in a bowl. Pad Thai, Pad See Ew, Pad Kee Mao, Rad Na or any other noodle dish served in a flat plate will also be eaten with fork and spoon. (TRE 3)
26) Do not ask for a knife and try to eat your meal using a fork and knife. It’s not only that eating rice with a fork is impractical, but also everything in Thai food is normally bite-sized. People there would not think that you are rigid and do not want to adapt, but would likely just chuckle at your poor etiquette. (TRE 5)
27) Do not order only one dish that you would intend to eat by yourself. The meals are always shared. (TRE 5)
28) Do no hog any plate even though you ordered it. (TRE 5)
29) Do not wait for all the dishes to arrive before you start eating. Thai meals are leisurely affairs and the food just keeps on coming but remember the Senior exception see #18 above. (TRE 3)
30) Do not take from the middle of the serving plate, but rather, take from the side and work your way around that spot toward the middle. (TRE 5)
31) Do not take many different kinds of food in your plate at once. The Rule of three is working here too: no more than three kinds at once, and one is preferable. (This won’t work when it comes to a buffet, so see the buffet etiquette in the section down below.) Remember, you’ll have a much smaller plate to eat on as well. (TRE 4)
Thai monks would be the only exception to this rule. Monks have a special way of eating their food. The Thais call it “Chan Sam Rauam” which translates as “eating together”, but not in the meaning of men but related to food. (Chan=eat for monk only, Sam-Rauam=combine) The monk usually takes everything he’s got in his alms bowl and mixes them together–savory, dessert, everything, (excluding the flowers, candle and incense, indeed) before eating them. This is a way to detach from a sense of taste, smell and texture. For you to mix many different kinds of foods together on your plate you’re not only sacrificing the flavors of delicious foods and signifying that you can’t tell the difference between them, but also will be considered greedy, or at the worst, rude.
32) Do not heap your plates full. That’s rude. You may start with a big spoonful of rice from the rice serving bowl, but take other food a few bites at a time and keep going back for more, slowly. (TRE 5)
33) Do not stir the food in the serving plate around looking for the piece you want. (TRE 5)
34) Do not take only the good parts just for yourself. For instance, meat and vegetables are often mixed together in the dish. If you don’t eat the vegetables, you don’t need to take them, and shouldn’t, but take just a few pieces of meat, then pass the plate around to other people at the table first before you take a few more pieces. You can go back and take more, but make sure each time you only take a few pieces, making sure other people got some too. (TRE 5)
35) DO NOT TALK WITH FOOD IN YOUR MOUTH! See how I’m screaming with all bold type?!?! This is really extremely bad manners. The most distasteful thing to the Thais is people who eat and talk at the same time. My sister “disqualified” her date and never wanted to hear from him ever again for doing so during the first date. No one wants to see the food churning around in your mouth, so wait until you’ve swallowed before speaking. Or, if you absolutely must speak, cover your mouth with your hand while doing so. Otherwise, people not only think you are low-class but also will never invite you back to eat with them again. (TRE 5)
36) Do not eat your food quickly. If you do, you’ll find yourself sitting there with an empty plate while everyone else has barely started. Savor the food, enjoy the various tantalizing tastes and you’ll enjoy the meal even more. (TRE 5)
37) Do not lick your fingers. (TRE 5)
38) Do not slurp your noodles. That’s a Japanese tradition and not acceptable at all in Thai culture. You’re supposed to eat as quietly as possible. (TRE 5)
39) Do not spit a piece of food that you don’t want to eat out of your mouth directly on to the dining table or your plate. You can grab a piece of napkin, spit in to that, wrap it and stick it under your plate or put it in the trash bowl. If napkins aren’t available then use your one hand to cover your mouth and spit in your spoon. Then hide that piece from sight–no one wants to see the corpse. (TRE 5)
40) Do not leave food unfinished on your plate, unless it’s not edible. Don’t leave the plate looking like the pig had just attacked and left. You plate should be clean, may be some trace of sauce left but if anyone can guess what you had eaten on that plate then you’re not doing so well on finishing it up. Push all the trash to one side of the plate, scrape all the loose rice grains, bits and morsels of foods and finish them. (TRE 4)
41) Do not blow your nose at the dining table. You can excuse yourself to go to the restroom and do it. (TRE 5)
42) Do not call your employee to do any work for you while they’re enjoying their meal. You have to wait until they finish. It’s a very important rule in my household, my grandmother’s iron rule which is also an important Thai tradition for every boss. If my grandmother heard, saw or knew of any one calling an employee to do work while they’re eating, that person had to do the job themselves. It’s such extremely bad form. (TRE 3)
Myths about Thai table manners
• “Always leave some food on your personal plate to show that you are full and the host had finally satisfied you.”
That’s NOT TRUE. I grew up attending one of the finest aristocrat schools in Bangkok over a decade, from kindergarden to high-school. My school was almost like a finishing school in some ways. We ate lunch that was provided by the school and we sat at a dining table so we could learn table manners, and there was not once when we were told we needed to leave food in our plate. It’s the opposite. We can’t leave food on our plate unless it was bone or something proven inedible. We’ve been taught not to waste a single grain of rice and to not take food from the serving plate that you don’t want or can’t finish.
• “Never eat the last bite on the serving plate.”
This is also NOT TRUE unless you were invited to a meal by someone. The tradition is to leave the last bite to the host and the host can scoop it up and offer it to you. Also there is another old tradition that no longer holds. I grew up in a household that had live-in helpers to whom we provided their meals. Back in the day most households in Bangkok did, and some still do, but this is no longer the majority due to the growth of the industries that require a large amount of labor. Dinner was also cooked by the helper and served to us first, after which they would take what remained of the dishes and dine themselves. This is where the old tradition started.
The chef or the helper who cooked the meal for the boss would not dare cook a separate meal just for themselves, because the owner paid for the ingredients and they were respectful to us. So the boss learned NOT TO finish the food in the serving plates, just so the helpers would get to at least taste everything too. I remember my grandmother or my dad would warn me if they saw me dive in to just one dish out of the whole set. They would say “Remember the people in the back, they’re hungry too”. Nowadays we eat out more than at home so we don’t need to leave the last bite for the helpers anymore.
• “Do not move or lift the serving plate off the table.”
This is also NOT TRUE. I personally never heard of this. It might be some regional tradition that I don’t know about, but we do lift the serving bowls or plates and hand them over to the other end of the table all the time in Bangkok.
• “Never flip the fish.”
This is only true in the area near the ocean, the South and the East of Thailand. It’s a fisherman tradition. They believe that once you turn the fish (to access the flesh on the other side), there will be a boat in the ocean that got turned over by a wave. My parent’s family are from Songkhla, a province in the south with a deep seaport, so we grew up with a strict order not to flip the fish. Instead, we take the middle bones out and put them aside, giving us access to the flesh on the other side of the fish that way. I was born and grew up in Bangkok and have never seen a Bangkokian care about this tradition. I also went to live in ChiangMai for two years, and none of my friends up north ever heard of this.
• “Don’t leave your chopsticks in the bowl.”
This is totally a Chinese, Japanese or Korean tradition for sure, not Thai. Thais don’t eat rice in a bowl to start with, and we don’t eat rice using chopsticks. I’ve been told NOT to do that at the Chinese Banquet in Thailand though, so it does apply when you go to a Chinese restaurant or Chinese home in Thailand.
• “Do pick up the check if it comes to you.”
That’s NOT entirely TRUE. It’s difficult to explain because it depends on the circumstances. I’m a city girl so my explanation would be different than the country folks. And if I go to a suburban area, it’s different system again. In general, the wait staff usually bring the bill to the person at the head of the table. If the waiter can’t determine the head of the table, then they will bring the bill to the person who asks for it, or the oldest, or the one who seems to have the highest rank or even the one who appears to be the wealthiest. If they happen to bring the bill to you, you can pass the bill to the host, or the general practice would be to split the bill among your group.
Someone, a non-Thai, said in Thai society he who is perceived to be the richest pays, and most of the time the “farang” would be paying. I’m not sure what the situation of that person was, but I assure you that in the normal circumstance Thais would not try to do that to a person visiting their country. This is completely different if you go there to meet the family of your “bride to be” whom you met on the internet, though. I’m not talking about THAT kind of situation here either.
At a quick lunch, Thais like to eat what they call the “one plate dish”. This will usually be a bowl of noodles, with or without soup, and may be more than one bowl. If they serve such a small portion in each bowl, then there will be a series of noodles in bowls. It could be a plate of stir-fried noodles such as Pad Thai, Pad See Ew, Rad Na, Kuay Tiew Kua Kai or a plate of rice with many different kinds of toppings.
In this type of meal situation, the proper etiquette is you order what you want for yourself. You don’t need to share your food. Feel free to add condiments to your plate or bowl of food as you like. The set of condiments normally would be readily available right there on the table. Except for th the sharing food part, the rest of the etiquette is still intact.
You may be required to share a table. If so, do not try to “make friends” or “force conversation”. Act as if you are seated at a private table.
At the buffet
Take food as you would normally do. I mean only if normal is you are not the greedy one that piles your plate up with food and then leaves it untouched at the table. You might see some Thai doing that, too. You may see a different side of certain Thais in this situation, but ignore them just like all the other Thais would.
What about not putting more than three things on your plate? Well, put soup or curry in a separate bowl that they normally provide near the soup station, and put other food on a separate plate. I still try not to put too many things on it and instead come back for a second, third or fourth round. Thai food has so many varieties of flavors, I don’t like to mix them all in one serving. The general rule is don’t take too much, don’t try to put more than two or three things with gravy on the same plate, and don’t put fruits or dessert with the savory items.
These rules may sound like a lot, and some may be completely unexpected, but remember that Thais are very relaxed people who don’t get upset about an honest mistake or bad table manners unless you are about to marry the host’s daughter or son. That would be slightly different situation. I think I focus a little too much on manners anyway. Over a decade of aristocrat school can damage you for life. You never know. And my viewpoint is also a feminine one: most male Thais would not be so sensitive to etiquette.
So even though this sounds kind of rigid, just do your best and if you make a mistake, you will often find your neighbor would quietly whisper the correct manner to you. Or everyone at the table will laugh at you in a good-natured way. I never really “force” my husband to do everything I’ve written down here. He already knew some and does it when he remembers, and at the least he knows to share his food. He’s been doing just fine there every visit.
Anyhow, the big plus is in Thailand you can have your both your elbows on the table at all times…and the servers expect only small tip, or none at all. Enjoy!