Wednesday, May 9, 2012

An Interlude on Thai Food and Eating

Note: I beg my readers' pardons, but this post has nothing to do with fish at all.  It was written a while back, and I never could find just what to do with it.  I kind of like it, so it's here.  

Seems like everyone loves Thai food, and this is unabashedly a good thing.  However,there is exceedingly little information in English, and most of what is available is fraught with inaccurate bits.  Thailand’s massive tourism industry (average of 15 million visitors a year to a country with a population of 65 million) has contributed to the confusion.  A lot of the food (and information) commonly available in country to tourists is watered down to a generally accepted standard.  And don’t even get me started on the “cooking schools”- some are stellar- most are not.  
Below are some insights.  Please do not take them to be absolutes or universal truths, but the bits that follow are accurate and have been vetted.

-Rice has of course always played a vital role in Thai culture and food.  More than 4000 varieties are native to the country, and archaeological sites around Ban Chang, in Udon Thani province (which is also the site of one of the oldest Bronze Age cultures found anywhere) suggest that rice has been eaten there for longer than most places- evidence for cultivation dates back several thousand years.  When one wishes to express the desire to eat, one says “gin khao[1]” (“eat rice”).  Similar rice-based expressions exist of course in Mandarin (“che fan”), Cantonese (“sik fan”) and most other cultures where rice plays as dominant a role. 
-Eating in Thailand is a social activity.  Food is best cooked, shared and eaten together.  The more people, the better the meal. 
-Whole fish and birds and large chunks of meat aside, rice actually should form the main component of one’s meal.  The dishes themselves are accompaniments to the rice. 
-When eating in a group, no matter what is ordered, and no matter by whom, everything is meant to be shared.  The food goes in the middle.  A plate of rice (not a bowl) goes at each person’s setting.  One should take a bit at a time from the dishes in the middle and place it on one’s own plate.  Eat with a spoonful of rice. 
-If one’s mouth is burning form too much heat, liquid makes it worse.  Eat a few spoonfuls of unadorned rice instead.  Or one can just keep eating until the plate is empty and attend to the damage later.
-Eating curry on its own is ridiculous and wasteful.  Please, eat with rice.  Same usually, though not always, goes with yam and laap (except when snacking- see below).  
-Thai food is intentionally made too highly flavored- because it will be consumed with rice, which tamps everything down considerably. 
-This is by now an obvious statement, but chopsticks only fill specific roles in Thai food.  When eating brothy noodles in a shop or stall, chopsticks are the usual implements.  Dry noddle dishes like Phat See Yu, Phat Kee Mao and Phat Thai go either way (usually chopsticks on the street, spoon and fork at home).  Aside from that, it isn’t done.  Thais themselves joke about their clumsiness with chopsticks.
-Traditionally, the only utensil at the table might have been a common soup spoon used to transport wet foods from the center bowl to an individual’s setting.  Beyond that, food was eaten with the hands.  Spoons and forks were introduced and popularized in the 19th century and the practice of eating jasmine rice with the hands has more or less disappeared.
 -However, the only logical way to eat sticky rice is with the hands.  There is nothing sadder than watching someone wrestle a wad of sticky rice with a fork and spoon.  Sticky rice is more commonly consumed in the North and Northeast, and rarely (outside of snacks) in the Center or South.  To eat sticky rice:  take a chunk of rice out of the communal receptacle and knead into a ball in your hand.  Tear off a smaller chunk, and knead that into a ball.  Dip the small ball in one of the common dishes and eat.  Or, flatten the small ball of rice, and use as a spoon.
 -One should of course only use the Right hand when taking food from a communal plate (as a Southpaw, this one has always been quite difficult for me). 
-When using a fork and spoon, remember that the spoon is the dominant utensil, and is held by the hand which would normally hold the fork at a Western table.  The fork is held in the ‘knife hand’, and is used to shovel food towards the spoon.  One uses the spoon exclusively to bring the food to one’s mouth (but see below for snacking). There will not be a need for a knife at any Thai table.  If a big piece of meat is on the table, it will be dismembered by hand , spoon, and fork.
-When eating freshly steamed sticky rice, the grains will often stick to the hands.  This is remedied by rubbing the hands with a small piece of fatty gristle plucked from one of the grilled or fried meats or fish. 
-Raw pig’s blood keeps for a surprisingly long time unrefrigerated in tropical heat, so go ahead and try the Gui Tiao Nam Tok.  
-If you like what you are eating, say “aroy” in the Central part of country; “saep” in the Northeast; and “lahm” in the North.  Believe it or not, these are three of the most important words you can know, especially if you find yourself farther away from the Big City.  Sharing food is a fundamental element of Thai politeness and hospitality, and you will make many friends (and amuse lots of folks) by using these words.   Many apologies, but I do not know the Jawi equivalent.
-There are no courses in Thai food.  No matter what is ordered, the food will come out when it is ready, not in any pre-determined order.   
-There are not really desserts at all in Thai food.  Fruit is dessert, almost always.  Sweets are considered snacks (“kanom”) and are eaten throughout the day.  This explains why so many Thai restaurants have the same tired desserts.  The ubiquitous mango and sticky rice is a snack.
-Yes, millions of tourists from all over the globe come to Thailand every year.  And yes, English is something of a lingua franca.   If you are looking for the best food, though, you will need someone who a) speaks Thai; and b) knows where to go.  For example- Khao soi is a Chiang Mai specialty, and there is one restaurant that is considered to be the undisputed khao soi king.  This restaurant certainly does not advertise in English, and they don’t really advertise in Thai either.   
-Yes, it is a stereotype, but politeness is a big deal in Thai culture.  When in doubt, smile.  When angry, smile.  When confused, smile.  Trust me on this.
-The above cannot be stressed enough.
-There are really no breakfast foods in Thailand.  Khao Tom and Jok are commonly eaten in the morning, but they are not necessarily confined to morning.  One is just as likely to find someone eating fried chicken, sticky rice, and Nam Prik (which is one of the best breakfasts to be had in Chiang Mai). 
-When you order PhatThai, Phat See Yuu, or other dry noodle dishes, please remember this:  The dish is not seasoned when it reaches your table.    Thai noodle dishes are not meant to be bland- rather the eater is meant to season to his or her taste.  Seasoning your noodles is essential.  This goes for Thai restaurants in Thailand and America.  Nothing is worse than unadorned Thai noodle dishes.  In Thailand, no table in a noodle shop is complete without the bowls of seasoning (ground dry chilis, sugar, vinegar with or without chilis, and fish sauce with or without chilis).  Even with take-away orders, there will always be several little plastic bags, each bag full of one of the necessary condiments.  Add one or all of these components to the dish to make it yours.  I cannot fathom how anyone could ever like Phat Thai or Phat See Yuu exactly as they are served.   Thai restaurants in America serve the same bland noodle dishes, but without the seasonings.  If you ask, however, they can and will always be provided.  Thais tend to sweeten their Phat Thai to a ridiculous degree.  Very spicy and cloyingly sweet.
-There should be quite a bit of oil on the surface of a curry.  If it is not there, the dish wasn’t made correctly.
-Green papaya salad is considered to be originally a Lao[2] dish (approximately 35% of the country is ethnically Lao- the whole Northeast, a region collectively called Isaan).  In the rest of Thailand, it is called Som Tam, and is made with fresh chilis and fish sauce.  In the Northeast, it is always made with dried chilis and fermented fish- and they call it Tam Som.   Som Tam is spicy and sweet.  Tam Som is exceedingly pungent and fiery hot (and a little sweet).
-Thai food is almost always served warm or around room temperature.  With the exceptions of Khao Tom and Jok, food doesn’t need to be very hot. 
-Traditionally, most food is cooked on a grill or in a wok over charcoal.
-All beef is cooked just about well-done….or eaten raw.  There is very little in between.  Medium rare beef is for western establishments serving steaks (and I would advise against most steaks in Thailand).  When making Thai food in America, it is imperative that the leanest cuts of beef be used, and even then the meat will be too soft.  Cattle in Thailand are skinny, and the meat is ultra lean- almost tough to the western tongue.  The best beef we have found so far in Texas for Thai food is grass-fed Longhorn or Brahman (most cattle in Thailand are also Brahman).   
-Use the clay or wooden mortar for crushing garlic or making salads.  Use the stone for curry pastes and spices. 
-Thai people love to eat sour unripe fruit, especially mango and tamarind.  Eat with a mix of sugar and ground dry chilis (and sometimes fish sauce).  The fruit is meant to be so sour as to make the mouth water and pucker.   
-As for pork, see above about beef. It is quite difficult to find an equivalent taste in the supermarket here- Thai pigs are smaller and fed a much different diet (closer to what pigs in this country were fed decades ago- massive amounts of mixed organic waste).  Best bet here would be pastured pigs or feral hogs up to 50 lbs. dressed.  Pork is occasionally served highly marinated and uncooked as goi muu.    
-Concerning chicken, use smaller, leaner birds.  Not rooster lean exactly- closer to layer lean.  The breast is generally the least desirable part of the chicken.  Hack up thighs and legs for curries and stir-fries.
-Not all Thai food is spicy, though most is highly flavored.  Phat Pong Gali Bu is a marvel of competing flavors, with only very mild heat.  Adding too much chili heat destroys the flavor.
-Thai people never stop eating.  Sweets, noodles, fruits, crunchy bits (chips, pork skin, green fruit, grilled sticky rice cakes), and salads can all be kanom- though anything and everything may serve in a pinch. Salads (think papaya salad or yam) are generally eaten without rice when snacking, and forks seem to be the weapon of choice. 
-Thai apartments rarely have kitchens or kitchen nooks or anything except a fridge (if one is willing to pay the extra rent for it).  No cooking at all may be done in those apartments, which is why the open markets are always so stocked with prepared foods.  This is not street food- it is a meal.  These markets provide breakfast, lunch, and dinner (and kanom) for the majority of city dwellers.   Most apartments have tiny balconies though, and you would be surprised how much cooking can be done with an electric wok, a rice cooker, and eight square feet.
-Phat Thai , dried squid, fried meatballs, fried fishballs, grilled sausages, roti (not exactly the Indian kind), cut fruit, pickled fruit, salted fruit- these are street foods.
-Fruit plays a huge role in Thai eating.  Lots of fruit, all the time.
-In Thai homes- or at least village homes- meals are eaten on a mat on the floor.  Never wear shoes on the mat, and never walk on the mat (even barefooted).  Don’t point the soles of your feet towards another person.
-When Thai people say “worms” they usually mean “maggots”. 

[1] The Thai alphabet has 44 consonants, 36 vowels, and several tone markers, which makes for great difficulties when transliterating from Thai to English.  The Mandarin Chinese pinyin system is efficient and quite elegant, but unfortunately, no universal equivalent exists for Thai (there is a formally accepted system, but it is not consistently used).  So, all spellings of Thai words in this article are of my own devising according to sound (the Mandarin training takes over sometimes).  Tones are not marked in spellings.

[2] “Laos” is the English word for the country.  Don’t pronounce the “s”.  The common English word for the people, language, and culture of Laos is “Laotian”, which is awkward.  The word used in Laos and Thailand   is “Lao”.  Lao people, Lao food, Lao culture.  Much prettier and more elegant.  


  1. The lack of fresh by-catch fish is not working for me, sir. I'm going to need an explanation ASAP, or at least an update of some variety. Thanks!

  2. Anonymous-

    A thousand apologies. All I can say is that great things are afoot. I beg your patience. Very soon all questions shall be answered.

  3. James B.--formerly AnonymousJuly 13, 2012 at 7:05 PM

    Well, if I can't get any fish from you, is there anyone else around here that sells fresh by-catch? I know Airline Seafood does sometimes, but that's freakishly far away and they usually don't have it. Barrelfish sounds pretty good right about now.

  4. Hello- never will be able to get fish from me again in the VERY near future. Please stay tuned for details

  5. PJ; just got back from my third trip to Thailand. Excellent article and spot on! am heading to Oxheart tonight and will relay your Thai article to my family.

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    Java Pura Coffee Roasters

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