Thai Table Manners-Put Down the Chopsticks!

Thai Table Manners-Isan Lunch
My wife (far left) and friends in Isaan eating lunch. (Isaan is the northeast area of Thailand.) When in Rome, eat as the Romans. I do.

When visiting Thailand, you should eat like a Thai…literally.

While there will be a slew of Thai dishes you could never stomach such as red ant eggs (an Isaan delicacy), water buffalo skin (my sister-in-laws favorite), or deep fried chicken intestines (great with beer), whatever Thai food you do choose to eat, you should eat it in the same manner as Thai people do.

After almost two decades of marriage to my Thai wife and being press ganged into Thai culture, I have learned to eat like Thai people.

Rule #1: Put Down the Damn Chopsticks!

Thai Table Manners
Thai children are taught proper table manners. Always eat your Pad Thai with a fork…of course.

Thais eat Thai food with a spoon and fork. They do not use chopsticks.

The spoon (usually a table spoon) is used to bring food to your mouth. The fork is used to manuveur your food around your plate and onto the spoon. Generally, spoon in the right hand; fork in the left.

Individual table settings will not have a knife. Knives are used in the kitchen-not the dining table. Meat is served already cut-up into bite sizes. When you do need to cut something on your plate, Thais will use the spoon.

Chopstick Exceptions

Thai food and chop sticks
Thais commonly use chop sticks to eat their noodle soups. But they put the food from the chopsticks onto a spoon and not their mouth directly.

Thais use chopsticks when eating Chinese food. (Duh!) They also use chopsticks to eat their many varieties of noodle soup (guideow).

At Thai restaurants in Thailand, you’ll see a jar of chopsticks on the table. They’re used for the noodle soups-a lunch time staple. But even then, the chopsticks are used to snatch goodies from your bowl of guideow and place them onto a spoon.

Rule #2: The Jasmine Rice Rules For Family Style Dinners

Thai Table Manners-Thai Jasmine Rice
Rice can come to the dinner table in a variety of ways. It can be served family style (photo top left), or molded on a simple plate. (photo lower left) Lunch can be different because rice is often part of the dish you ordered.

Rice is often the first thing to go on your plate. It’s often served by someone walking around the table and serving you. You decide how much you want. (Remember you can always get more.)

It’s fine to put a pile of rice onto your plate as long as you eat it. I eat very little rice with dinner and Thai people think it quite strange.

Rarely at restaurants or Thai homes will white rice be served in individual servings. If ordered separately, rice is usually served on a small plate that can be shared with the table. Sticky rice is often served in individual containers (more on sticky rice later), but white rice is not.

Cultural Tip: Pad grapao, kao pad, prik thai, etc. are all lunch dishes. The rice is part of the dish and so you wouldn’t order it separately.Β 

Rule #3: Don’t Be A Piggy With The Thai Food

Thai Table Manners
An American buffet line plate. Thais don’t load up their plates like this. Take small portions and eat it before moving on. Besides, if you loaded up a plate like this photo with Thai food, it wouldn’t taste very good.

You can pile your plate high with rice, BUT don’t do that with the Thai food. You’re not in an American buffet line!

Take small portions of the Thai food. (An average Thai meal will have 3-5 different dishes available.) Then eat that small portion before going on to the other dishes or getting more of the same. That’s how Thai people eat-really.

Should you put the Thai food on top of the rice? It really depends on the type of food. With most dishes, Thai people put it to the side of their rice. But with curries, they often ladle it right over the rice. It’s completely up to you.

A quick review of Rule #3: Take a small portion, then eat that portion before moving on.

Rule #4: Don’t Eat With Your Hands

Thai Table Manners
Thai roti. For us barbaric farangs, we’d eat this chocolate roti right off the grill with our hands. But if you look close, it’s always diced up into small bites so you can eat it with a fork in a civilized manner.

I violate this simple rule more than any other. But what do you expect from someone whose culture adores pizza and hamburgers.

The surest way to raise eyebrows at the Thai dining table is to start eating with your hands.

I know that drumstick looks awfully good sitting there on the serving plate, but try to refrain from grabbing and eating it with your hands. That bowl of peanuts in front of you-don’t dip you hand into it and grab a fistful-use a spoon to retrieve them from the bowl.Β  I could go on and on….

True story: My wife and I took her sister and husband out for “farang food night” in Lamphun and I ordered a cheeseburger for the husband. He stared forlornly at the cheeseburger. I told him to eat it with his hands and showed him how. He simply refused to eat the hamburger like hamburgers are meant to be eaten-with your hands. My sister-in-law had to cut up the hamburger so he could eat it with utensils.

Exceptions: Sticky rice-eat it with your hands. Lettuce, cucumbers, herbs, etc. (served fresh on a large plate)-eat with your hands.

Thai Table Manners-Sticky Rice
Sticky Rice is eaten with your hands. It can be served in a large communal serving basket or individual small ones. Sticky rice is often dipped into the myriad of Thai chili sauces.
Thai Table Manners
On this table spread of northern Thai food, sticky rice is served individually in a small wicker basket. Bottom left: Gang Hung Lay (Pork Stew). Bottom right: Pork jerky. Top right: Nam fermented sausage.

Rule #5: Forget All The Previous Rules

Thais are wonderfully forgiving to foreigners when it comes to table manners. Unless you act in some completely disgusting way, Thais don’t care how you eat. They just want you to try and like their food.

All the table manners I’ve mentioned above, you could easily figure out in five minutes by just being a good observer at the dinner table.

The only table manner that means anything is being a good dinner guest.

Tips, Tidbits, Odds & Ends, Warnings and Other Sundry Items

Thai food manners. Northern Thai food dinner
Northern Thai apetizer dish. When in Rome-Eat like a Roman. Relax. Just enjoy yourself.

Here’s a free-flowing list of miscellaneous Thai table manner issues that can pop up at the dinner table:

  • Thais like to watch farangs eat Thai food. They want you to like it because its their culture. I was raised to not stare at people while they eat (typical farang table manner). Some Thais will stare at you when you eat. Get used to it.
  • Thais don’t dine alone by choice. The more the merrier. Its fine to show up unannounced for dinner, or invite yourself along if people are heading out.
  • No one in Thailand has gotten the memo that it’s impolite to talk on your cell phone during dinner.
  • Alcohol flows freely.
  • Thai people think it’s really cool to drink wine. They love to drink wine with farangs. (Just like we love to eat Thai food with Thais.) If you’re invited to dinner and you bring a bottle of wine, you’ll be treated like a conquering hero.
  • If you like a certain Thai dish and you finished it, Thais often, without asking you, will order another dish even when you’re completely stuffed.
  • There are no “courses” at a Thai dinner. The food just starts showing up. Start eating as soon as the food is put on the table. More is coming.
  • You will face larger cultural issues than merely table manners if you eat at a Thai restaurant in Thailand that serves a Thai clientele. Read my post “Fat Rice & Chicken: A Cultural Chasm” and try to cross this cultural bridge.Β 

The End of a Meal

Thais have a mini-ritual for when you’ve finished eating. Put the fork over the spoon on your plate. This signals everyone-waitress and friends-that you’re done.

Bon Appetit

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