Thai Eating Etiquette
I remember my first time in Thailand, eating with everyone else. Obviously we all try, no matter where we are, to hold some resemblance of politeness, and at least try not to make a fool of ourselves. So with me thrown into another culture, obviously those two things would be of primary importance to me.
My first month in Thailand I really had no idea what was going on, often because my friends would 'forget' I didn't speak Thai, but also because the culture in Thailand is so dramatically different from my own. As with many other things during the adjusting period, mistakes are likely to happen.
If there is any place where being polite is more important, it is at the dinner table. And I do not mean when you are hanging out with your good friends. I mean when you have your friends parents sitting at the table with you. This is where you are bound to mess up. I remember thinking to myself, 'do as the Romans do.' I remember also thinking, 'show western table manners to the extreme.' You probably are thinking the same.
And that's why you will fail miserably.
See the problem is that there are rules that you wouldn't even consider for a second, rules probably that would seem very strange to western people. Anyway, without further ado, lets start with the rules:
Monks eat first. If there are any other monks in the room, and it's meal time, don't even put food on your plate until every monk has put food in their mouth. I won't even start to mention how offended a Thai would be if you break this rule. Quite often you might even be expected to serve them food.
Elders eat first. If there is anyone at the table a significant age older than you, say 5+ years, don't eat anything until each of them have put food in their mouth. It would be considered being disrespectful to your elders if you eat before them, as if you have the nerve to forget about their well-being first. But what if the elder doesn't eat or isn't hungry, or just taking too much time? Easy, offer them to try some food. Just hand them a plate and say, 'here try this pad thai, its really delicious.' Anything reasonable to hoax the elder to eat is fair game.
The elder sits at the head of the table. This isn't much different than the western tradition of sitting the most important person of the occasion at the head of the table - the birthday boy, the company boss, a guest speaker, the guy who is paying for the food, etc. But in Thailand, its all age based. So what about a situation where you would be eating with others from your company, and your boss is much younger than someone else in your company, who sits at the head? Good question . . .
The eldest pays for the meal. Of course you should offer to pay your part, but don't push it. The elder pays for the meal and is proud to pay for it. It is basically his/her way of saying 'thanks for being my guest and eating with me, and this is what I have to offer you in return.'
Eat 'chinese style' or 'family style.' Most people familiar with asian restaurants know how this works. But I will talk about it anyway. At a restaurant (or at home) the group orders food together, and when served it is placed at the center of the table. Then everyone can take whatever they want from the center plates and place it on their own plates. At first it may seem a little strange, but when you aren't familiar with half the foods you see, wouldn't it be better if you can sample a little of everything? And of course, everyone splits the cost when it comes time to pay.
Ok the above rules seem fairly normal, reasonable, or just plain obvious, right? Now I will talk about the weird and counter-intuitive rules.
Don't eat all the food on your plate. That's it. If you finish all the food on your plate, you are insulting the cook or host. You are telling them that they didn't feed you enough, and that they are poor cooks. For a westerner this rule may be a little hard to follow. In western culture we are taught to 'clean your plate.' 'How dare you not eat your beans, there are starving kids in Ethiopia!' But don't worry this rule isn't followed to often. At restaurants its perfectly ok to clean your plate. If you are invited to eat a Thai persons house where an elder cooks the meal, then follow the rule. I have once even seen the cook of the meal herself intentionally scoop some rice to the side of her plate to be polite.
Eat fruit last. If you are eating a meal, don't touch any of the fruit until you have finished your meal. I once got some fruit and put it on my plate with other food and everyone started staring at me. Ok I guess the staring was becoming an everyday normal, so I just ignored it. But then my friend leaned over and whispered, 'you aren't supposed to eat fruit until you finished your meal.' 'Ummmm, oops.' 'Yea it just occurred to me it makes no sense so I don't know why, but just so you know not to do it again.' I guess it is the western equivalent of 'no dessert until you have finished your meal.'
Only put enough food on your plate for a mouthful or two. In western culture it is considered normal to 'pile it on' when it comes to food on your plate. As long as you can finish it, its ok to put as much food on your plate as you want. But in Thai eating etiquette, this is very impolite. You should never put more than a few mouthfuls of food on your plate at any time. This rule isn't very important to follow when you eat with the younger Thai generation, but with the older generation this is very important. I remember getting my friends' parents really mad at me because I started to 'pile it on.' They even scolded me in their broken English, definitely not cool . . .
Eat pizza with a fork and knife. In Thailand, pizza is NOT a finger food. I remember eating my seafood pizza at Pizza Hut in Thailand, and I somehow managed to convince my friend to eat pizza with her hands. It was weird.
squid on a freakin pizza! ewwwwww
Never stab food with your fork. If you are ever going to use a fork, only use it to scoop food onto your spoon. Thai people either use chopsticks when eating Chinese food, or they use a fork to scoop food onto a spoon when they eat thai food. Oh, and the spoon always goes in the right hand, the fork in the left.
When passing food to an elder, NEVER pick up the plate to do so!!! You must slide the plate across the table. Plate being lifted up = bad. I got a lot of people mad at me because I just picked up the plate like any normal american would when asked to pass . . . This could get weird when the food item is all the way on the opposite side of the table . . .
That concludes my list of Thai Eating Etiquette for now, Ill write more when I think of more. I wish you luck.