Module 3 – Thai Dining Etiquette – Lesson 2 – Thai Table Manners – The Dont’s

Utensil-related Issues

1) 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.

2) 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.

 

Food-related Issues

3) Do not order only one dish that you would intend to eat by yourself. The meals are always shared.

4) Do no hog any plate even though you ordered it.

5) 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.

6) 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.

7) 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.

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.

8) 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.

9) Do not stir the food in the serving plate around looking for the piece you want.

10) 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.

11) 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.

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.

12) 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.

13) Do not lick your fingers.

14) 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.

15) 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.

16) 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.

 

Social-related Issues

17) Do not blow your nose at the dining table. You can excuse yourself to go to the restroom and do it.

18) 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.

 

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.

At my school 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.

Households that had live-in helpers to whom meals were provided, 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 the family 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 their boss.

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.

“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 and the country side.

“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.

In Songkhla, a province in the south with a deep seaport, their is a strict order not to flip the fish.

Instead, 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 have never seen a Bangkokian care about this tradition.

“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.

At Lunch

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 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.

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.

 

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!

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