Thai Cooking Good Table Manners

Module 3 – Thai Dining Etiquette – Lesson 1 – Thai Table Manners – The Do’s

Utensil-related Issues

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.

3) Do use chopsticks to eat noodles if they’re provided, but don’t ask for them if they’re not present.


Food-related Issues

4) ALWAYS share your food.  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.

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?

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.

7) Do take food from the side of the serving plate and not from the center.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Whan Na is actually the action of the real farmer throwing grains of rice around to spout on the rice field.

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.

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.

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.

Social-related Issues

18) Do wait to be invited to start eating if you see the “Senior” present at the table.

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.

This is quite automatic to me. I don’t even think about it while I do it, and didn’t think about it. 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.

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.

22) Do offer to pay for at least your portion of the meal.

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.

24) Do thank the host for the meal.

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