Thai Eating Customs

Thai eating customs don't share many similarities with the American customs, in most respects the eating style is quite different. To start with one similarity, Thais use a fork and spoon to eat (contrary to what you might expect, chopsticks are not the main utensil). However you may see only one spoon being used, in particular the short Thai stainless spoon which is found all over the country to eat everything from soup to fried rice.

In a Thai meal, various dishes are placed on the table for people to share--you wouldn't eat one thing exclusively. Below is a fairly common gathering.

Thai Eating Customs

Each person starts with a plate of rice, and in the middle of the table are different things to eat. Ideally, as in the picture, the meal to be shared includes a bowl of soup, at least one spicy dish, a plate of fresh vegetables, and various sauces for each person to add flavor based on preference. Here there are three difference sauces in the middle (in small bowls). Nearest is namprik kapi (with the yellow spoon). To the left of namprik kapi is nampla prik, which is a mixture of fish sauce, chopped Thai chile peppers, and a touch of lime juice. To the right (on the fish plate) is namprik tadaeng.

While American Thai restaurants usually don't bring the typical Thai table condiments to your table, they will if you ask for it. Indeed we know Thai restaurants in the Seattle area which offer fantastic Thai food, and a condiment caddy (such as this one, called "Puang Prik" in Thai) is usually brought out for the Thai guests and anyone else who requests it. Next time you eat at a Thai restaurant ask for this and spice your food individually.

Each dish is shared, and eaten bit-by-bit as it's spooned over rice. In the picture above, the eaters are all in the same family. Serving spoons aren't placed on each food dish, but often a meal between friends will use serving spoons. Each eater reaches over and spoons out whatever he/she wants, sets it on their plate and eats it with rice.

You might notice in the picture that the toddler sits on his aunt's lap. Children are often coddled in Thailand by parents and close relatives, the concept of high-chairs to seat kids is not a common one. In fact, Thai language has no word for a child's high-chair, and these are not sold in stores. Often kids will sit on someone's lap at the table, and spoon fed until they are quite old by American standards.

Next time you eat Thai food, if you don't already observe the custom of sharing dishes, try it. Order several different dishes, each with it's own serving spoon, and place them in the middle of the table. Then place some rice on your table and spoon bit-by-bit onto your rice.

Regional Cooking

Thai Eating Customs

At left is a picture of a Khan Tok, a tray used to hold the bowls containing various dishes that make up a khan tok dinner. Typically the khan tok has legs, as shown. The name is derived from kan, or bowl, and toke, a low table made of woven bamboo.

Khan tok dinner started with humble beginnings in the north of Thailand where mothers would gather various small dishes on a small tray and serve it to the family, then take away the empty dishes on the same tray. The prestige of a khan tok dinner has grown over the years, and now this style of meal is a major form of entertainment in Thailand's northern region. The khan tok are more elaborate, made of teak and sometimes lined with gold. Khan tok dinners are for honored guests or special occasions. A variety of food is served, but khan tok always includes sticky rice is served in small serving baskets.

Khan tok meals are celebrated throughout the north of Thailand especially at hotels where foreign visitors are treated to large celebrations. An interesting custom is for the khan tok meal to start with a massive quantity of sticky rice, in a basket the size of a bathtub, being brought out by several men who carry it out on bamboo sticks being led by traditional Thai dancers. This signals the beginning of the meal. Cigarettes rolled with banana leaf are served with the meal, the dancers perform on a candle lit stage, and large balloons made of silk paper, heated with a candle in the middle, float above.

We hope you enjoy this report of the customary Thai meal, and the regional khan tok dinner. Please feel free to leave comments about this story which we will add to the page below. Also see: Thai Ordination Ceremony and Thai Wedding Customs, and our visit to a local Thai restaurant.

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Comments

Diana Carter
August 19th, 2008
11:23 AM
I want to see more of this. I want to learn about foods of Isan and know more about their customs. My mother in law passed away 2 years ago, and there is so much still a mystery about her culture. We want our kids to know the richness of her traditions, language, and food.
Sylvia M. Nightingale
August 19th, 2008
1:13 PM
Do people reach across the table for foods or are they passed around? Also, can you put a little of several things on your plate or do you eat each individual thing before going on to the next item? Lovely pictures . I love Thai food, but can't seem to assemble all the ingredients and remember what to do. Wish I had a live-in Thai cook. (grin :-) )
Dick A. Wilcox
August 19th, 2008
2:05 PM
This is an excellent feature. I would like to see more of this type. My most enjoyable memories of my time in Thailand must include the food.
Zach Freeman
August 19th, 2008
3:21 PM
Very interesting. I'd like to see more of these reports on the various aspects of Thai culture. I plan to visit Thailand some day and it would be nice to know how not to look like a goofy forigner.
Dr. Robert Richardson
August 19th, 2008
6:01 PM
This is an accurate depiction of Thai table customs.However, there is usually a roll of toilet paper in te middle of the table used as napkins. Most have deciorative covers. However, one unappetizing aspect is the common custom of using the same utensil for both eating and dishing out food from the serving dish. Yuck. I lived in Thailand for years and it is a good idea to learn to say "Kor chorn klang" before everyone digs in. This means you would like a serving spoon and signals to the others you don't appreciate them sticking their spoons in their mouths and then into the serving dish. Drug-resistant tuberculosis is rampant in SE Asia, so it is a good idea not to eat after others.
rp
August 19th, 2008
10:52 PM
Thank you for sharing you food/eating culture of Thailand with those of us around the global-internet world. I have visited Thailand twice and am completely in love with the people, their beautiful culture, and their marvelous, incredibly delicious cuisine. I cannot wait to return to Thailan. Please post more photos and videos regardng authentic Thai dishes......most especially Tom Ghai Kha (coconut chicken soup) and Pad Thai. Regards, RP in South Carolina, USA
JD
September 9th, 2008
1:53 PM
I never really thought about customs when eating thai food here in the states, but you know, I always eat thai style with shared dishes in the center of the table. It's usually only me and my partner, but how nice it is to see your site offering such information for those of us who wish to know more about other cultures. Thank you for sharing this informationg with us.
Anonymous
September 26th, 2008
12:44 AM
Thai food is really nice. I've been to Thailand several times.Just like in China they dont have a serving spoon for each dish but if you will ask they will give you.I think it is a good suggestion that they practice putting serving spoon for each dish for sanitary reason.
malathy tharmaraju
October 5th, 2008
10:08 PM
most easy and one of our very tasty thai food like kamung khai and deepfried sesame banana are one of our gr8 thai food and snack.oh! patai is also very very tasty noodle...thankyou somuch....sawadi kap....kaapung kap! lovingly malathy..
Lola
October 11th, 2008
6:17 PM
When I visited Thailand (Bangkok, Koh Samui, Koh Phi Phi, and Chang Mai), it seemed that both the fork and spoon were used for eating. However, the fork's only purpose was to push food into the spoon using the back side of the fork when needed. You actually eat directly off the spoon. I don't know if they have particularities about being lefty or righty there, but to be on the safe side (I taught English in a temple school to preschool/kindergarten age children) I (a lefty) followed the teacher's instructions of holding the fork in the left hand and the spoon in the right hand.
Steven B.
November 28th, 2008
5:39 PM
Dear Malathy Tharmaraju, If you happen back onto these postings or if someone else knows, I am very curious about "kamung khai". What is it and how do you make it? I cannot find a recipe for it anywhere. I know about the sesame bananas and Pad Thai you mentioned. Both are very good. I can only assume kamung khai is another good Thai dish that I will have to try.
Patricia West
January 20th, 2009
5:05 PM
I want to thank you for this site. It is a fabulous place to visit and so educational. The videos, recipes and pictures are of such high quality. I love cooking Thai foods and would do anything to visit Thailand. Even though my chances of visiting are slim, I can enjoy "being there" through your site. Thank you again for such a fantastic site and such wonderful recipes.
malathy tharmaraju
September 22nd, 2009
8:38 AM
hey,hello steven b. u can check me on my face book and will tell about gr8 special thai sweet coconut pancake,thai spring roll and my own secret recepies 2 for how 2 prepare spicey sea food or vegetarian patai and i,ll tell u about kamung kai and kamu deng..so bbye 4 now yu tc regards sawadi ka,sayonara,senore mucho gracias. kindly malibu lady!
Anonymous
September 29th, 2009
11:17 AM
yay thai!
chris
October 18th, 2009
4:09 PM
Dude you forgot some of the most popular street food. Ie Those crispy banana pancakes with choc sauce and I think condensed milk And various clear noodle soups. The crispy balls that come with sweet chilli.
Wally Campbell
March 17th, 2010
11:34 PM
Type your comments here Excelent Explanation I was seated at table at ViP bus Stop, with this type of arrangement. No English , the Thais helped me (as Always) But now I Know More about whats going on. Wally Australia
PJ
April 21st, 2010
9:34 AM
This is the best website ever
Anonymous
August 21st, 2010
9:39 PM
thia land is a great place for growing rice that is why they have it with most meals!
Anthony Hattori
August 21st, 2011
2:03 AM
I remembered growing up in Thailand with my grandma(maternal grandmother) is that we used the small spoon to pick out the food from communal plates/dishes. Never use fork to place foods in the mouth.
Anonymous
March 12th, 2014
1:14 PM
this was great for a school project

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