Whether you are eating Thai food in the Land of Smiles, or going out to a Thai restaurant back in the States, the dining experience is enhanced knowing and using proper Thai dining etiquette and ordering correctly. First, know the basic foundation of Thai food: There are four seasonings — salty, spicy, sour and sweet — and you will want to order various dishes that ensure a balance of flavors and textures.
The concept of Western dining and Thai dining are completely different. In a European or American restaurant, meals usually consist of a starter, then a salad, usually accompanied with lots of fresh bread, followed by the main course and ending with a desert. Each person orders as an individual, and rarely is food shared. In Thailand, however, there is no such thing as a “starter” and there is no dish that belongs to any one person. To Thais, all dishes are to be shared.
In Thailand, a formal dinner would include a soup (which is served at the same time as all other dishes) or a spicy curry. If there is a curry, most would put the curry on top of the rice. There are many different types of curries, some mild and some very spicy. For Americans looking for non-spicy food, Yellow curry is usually the most mild of the curries. (See Comparing the Different Thai Curries).
For a formal Thai dinner, there would be several stir fried dishes, usually vegetables combined with chicken or pork (beef is not widely used in Thailand, and not particularly recommended). A center piece dish of a grilled fish is usually included.
There is often a tangy salad, like Som Tam (spicy Papaya Salad) and a noodle dish (Pad Se Ew) which often combines vegetables and meat or seafood. Most Thai salads are called “Yum” (as in Yum Talay for a Seafood Salad), but the word Yum actually refers to a dressing made up of fish sauce, lime juice, sugar and chilies. Light and acidic, Yum works as a palate cleanser between other foods.
Deserts are sweet and light, which often include sweet sticky rice and coconut as the primary ingredients (sweet sticky rice and fresh mango with coconut milk is a standard).
All the dishes (except the desert) will usually be placed on the table at the same time and eaten in no particular order. If not all dishes arrive to the table together (perhaps the grilled fish takes a longer time), it is customary for Thais to eat whatever comes to the table as it arrives.
Rice is an essential element of Thai food. In fact, the Thai word “to eat”, is Gin Kao, which literally translates to “eat rice”. Rice should be flavorful, and most Thai restaurants will serve quality Jasmine rice which has a special taste and smell reminiscent of Thailand. Often there will be brown, black or red rice available (especially in Northern Thailand) or a often a mixture of these styles of rice. These are especially flavorful and I recommend them whenever it is are available.
The number of people seated at the table determines the number of dishes ordered. All dishes are shared and enjoyed together. The more people the better, which allows everyone to sample a greater number of dishes and have more variety of flavors and textures. Thais will eat very slowly, enjoy the food, conversations, laughter and company.
Each person at the table will be given a plate and a soup bowl, and the waitress will give each a serving of rice. That is about the extent of the food serving from the waitress, after that everyone is expected to add a small amount from the various dishes on the table. Someone at the table will ladle some soup in the individual bowls, and each person takes just a small portion of whatever appeals to them at the table. Savior one distinct flavor, and then move on to another flavor. Thais like to pick at food, helping themselves to the various dishes one serving spoon amount at a time. Take your time and try everything.
When ordering in a Thai restaurant, don’t forget to specify your desired spice level, as neglecting to do so may leave your mouth burning. Remember that Thais eat their food extremely spicy, so don’t be too brave when ordering (unless chilies are a regular part of your diet). “Medium spicy” is probably “hot” for most Americans. “Mild to medium” may be a safer bet for Americans traveling to Thailand and not ready for the typically high spice foods of Thailand. For Americans traveling to Thailand and not ready for the typical high spice, it is good to learn the phrase, Mai Phet, which translates into “no spice” as an instruction to give to the Thai waitress, and then it will be only slightly spicy. Unless you are much prepared physically for a huge Spice level, never order anything from the menu in Thailand that says it may be spicy, like a “Spicy Grilled Tuna”. If you are that rare kind of person that loves spice, Phet Mach translates to a lot of spice. And for regular folks, Phet Nit Noi, means a little spice.
Served with the courses are spicy sauces, the most common one in Thailand being Nampla Prik, which is a mixture of fish sauce with chopped green chili peppers and a touch of lime juice. This kicks up the spice level a lot. A red chili garlic sauce is also usually provided that is much more tolerable for Westerners. Sauces are often served in tiny little bowls next to your plate.
Whenever I visit a new Thai restaurant, I always ask the server to recommend at least one dish which the chef does particularly well. This way you’ll be certain to sample the best of what that establishment has to offer. Also, it’s a good way to try out dishes you may never otherwise order for yourself.
When eating, always wait for the host, usually the biggest noodle at the table (and the one who is going to pick up the entire tab) to invite you to help yourself before jumping in. When you’re finished there’s no need to place your utensils together, but leaving food on your plate may indicate you didn’t find the food tasty, which is always a big concern in Thailand.
Finally, the bill, Check Bin. This is always left for the wealthiest or most important person to pick up. If that happens to be you, then take it as a compliment. A meal is cheap in Thailand, even if there were 10 mouths to feed, it won’t break the bank. They aren’t being rude; this is simply the way Thais gain respect by looking after the stomachs of the less fortunate. There should never be any discussion about the bill. If one person takes it and covers the cost, there should be no protest because in a sense it would be insulting the host. Payment of the bill should be done discreetly.
If You are Vegetarian or do not eat Wheat and Other Diet Restrictions
Look tofu dishes on the menu. If none are listed, ask which dishes can be made vegetarian. Be sure to specify “no meat” when ordering, even if the description of your chosen dish does not list meat. Thais often use small amounts of meat and/or seafood when preparing their dishes. There are always vegetarian dishes available in a Thai restaurant, because it is simply leaving off an element of the dish.
Also, for those wanting no wheat gluten, understand that most soy sauce (which is often used in Thai stir fried cooking) usually contains wheat. Those allergic to Wheat should specify “no soy sauce” in the cooking. Other than that, there is seldom any wheat products used in Thai food.
MSG unfortunately is often used in Thai cooking. It is a flavor enhancer, and sometimes when a Westerner has a non-MSG meal, they think it is “flavorless”. Actually, their palate is used to the MSG (used most heavily in Chinese restaurants) and they are simply missing that enhancement. However, MSG is not good for health, as it is like salt on steroids. Some Thai restaurants in the West promote that they do not use MSG, and for those concerned about healthy eatting, these restaurants need to be encouraged.
Also, many Thai dishes contain Peanuts, and if there are allergies with this, you must tell the waitress. One main Thai dish, Param, is primarily peanuts, but also other dishes may have a small amount of peanut sauce added. Most Thai chefs are used to cutting out peanuts in meals (this is fairly common) and as long as they are told about it, this can accommodated easily.
What to Drink
Nothing goes better with spicy Thai food than a cold, light lager, especially on a hot day (that’s almost everyday in Thailand). If you like beer, ask your server for an authentic Thai brew like Chang or Singha. Thai beer is not up the standard of a good European beer — often Thai beer uses rice hops, for instance — but it is definitely “drinkable”.
Tiger Beer, brewed in Singapore is my favorite beer taste in Thailand.
If you prefer a non-alcoholic beverage, try Thai lime soda, made from key limes. Alternatively, water and green tea accompany most Thai meals. If a restaurant in Thailand may be a bit “iffy” in the sanitation area, it would be wise to have water with no ice. Water served in every restaurant would be bottled water, but the ice may not be.
In my humble opinion, a good wine is an essential part of a meal. In Thailand, it is not easy to get a good wine, however. Import duties for wine are very stiff, and coupled with shipping costs, the best wine (which I am totally convinced originates from Northern California) are rare and expensive, and even just decent wine is high priced. There is more wine available from Western Australia and Chile, but it is also rather expensive for the fairly mediocre wines from those areas. European wines are available but expensive. There is wine produced in Thailand (they have their own wine producing areas), but the quality has yet to mature, and most seasoned wine drinkers would reject it. To have a good wine for dinner in Thailand, it is best to bring wine from your own collection brought in by suitcase.
In the US and in Europe, Thai restaurants usually have a good selection, but it is important to get the right varietal to pair with Thai food. Traditionally, it has been accepted that white sweet wines, such as Gewurztraminer, Riesling, and off-dry to sweet German and Austrian wines are best to accompany the spiciness of Thai foods. Another good pairing would be a light dry Sauvignon Blanc.
But there can be such a variety of tastes in Thai food that often other wines go well. Red wines are being more accepted as a good compliment to Thai food, but they should be on the light-side. A heavy Burgundy that is perfect for a Western beef steak would never pair well with Thai food, which tends to be light. My recommendation for a red wine for Thai food would be Pinot Noir.
Actually, while I am not generally fond of Sparkling Wines (i.e., Champagne), some of the best Thai chefs claim that these wines are the very best for Thai food. Sparkling wines tend to have a lightness and sweetness to pair extremely well with spicy Thai dishes.
In Thailand, Scotch Whiskey and American rye whiskeys are popular and many Thais will bring a bottle from home to go with dinner in a restaurant. Johnnie Walker, Jim Beam, Jack Daniels, and Chevis Regal are considered prestigious and popular, and actually make ideal gifts to Thai people from visiting Americans.
Thai people generally use a Spoon and Fork to eat. There are no knives on the table, but it is not necessary to use one with Thai food in any case. Chopsticks are used only with noodles (which is considered “Street Food” and is usually just for lunch). In remote areas of the Thai Northeast in Isaan, many eat primarily with their fingers. The generally accepted story is that all people in Thailand at one time used fingers for eating, similar to how food is eaten in India.
In the later part of the nineteenth century, King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) as part of his Westernizing process (to avoid threats of colonization), had a big European style feast prepared in to observe Western dining habits and utensils. All the Europeans in the City (which were primarily missionaries) were invited to the palace for the feast, and the main purpose for the King was to observe their dining etiquette. After his observations, he decreed that the Thai people shall use European utensils for dining, but he (wisely) decreed that Thai people have no need for a knife. The use of the Spoon and Fork evolved into the way Thai people use them now, and it is considered polite to use them in the correct way. The Fork is held in the Left Hand, and the Spoon in the Right. Use the Fork to push food onto the Spoon. Avoid eating with the Fork, as Thais consider this to be crude.
Don’t ask your restaurant server for chopsticks. If they are needed for a noodle dish, your waitress would bring them to you with the dish. I am afraid many Americans typically ask for chopsticks out of a stereotype they may have about Asian people, and this is unfortunate. Always the Thai waitress will comply and bring the chopsticks if requested, but it sends a message to the Thai staff about the patron. The exception to this would be for Chinese or Japanese diners who are only accustomed to eating with the chopsticks, and it is well understood by Thai restaurant staff.
Some Important Thai Phrases to know for Dinner
In any good Thai restaurant in Thailand or anywhere else in the world, you would be greeted by the waitress saying “Sawadee Ka“, with her hands folded on her chest with a slight bow. An acknowledgement with a simple nod of the head, and a krup (or ka from a female) response is always appreciated.
For sure you will be asked during the meal, “Alloy Mai?” (Is it delicious?) — or more precisely is would be Arroy Mai? with a trill of the r’s. Answer back “Alloy Alloy” or “Alloy Mach” (It is delicious, and it is very delicious). After the meal, you will be asked, “Im Mai?” (Are you full?}. The answer is “Im”.
Meals are always an important part of Thai culture, and it is important to be polite at all times during dining. End the meal with “Kan Khun Krap” (Thank you, coming from a male speaker) or “Kan Khun Ka” (Thank you, coming from a female speaker), with hands together at chest level.