by Scott Coates
Food is one of life’s greatest pleasures. We need to eat to survive, so you might as well enjoy every bite to it’s fullest, especially when on vacation. Food is a major highlight on every Smiling Albino (SA) adventure. As much as Thais enjoy food, SA likes to think we relish our fueling-up sessions even more than the locals. In a never-ending quest to find the tastiest eats and treats in the Kingdom, it’s important to know what you’re looking for, where to find it and how to best enjoy it.
Whether you’re in the far south, submerged in the hustle and bustle of Bangkok or enjoying the slower pace of life in the north, you’ll quickly notice Thais eat anytime, anywhere. In fact, most social gatherings revolve around eating. For a great Thai evening, all that is required is a smattering of friends, a few dishes of food, a mat to relax on and often a bit of liquor for social courage. Sitting around for hours on end, singing songs, telling jokes and nibbling is one of the nation’s greatest pastimes.
So, the question for visitors is, how do you know what food is good, what’s not, and more importantly, how do you make sure you don’t look like an ass while eating it? Honestly, it’s a bit of a crapshoot at times, but with a bit of savvy and an appetite for culinary adventure, there’s a plethora of treasures to be found and enjoyed.
The surest way to find soul for your stomach is by relying on your five senses:
Sight – Stop, and have a look around. Take a walk down main drags, back alleys and stop to see what the locals are nibbling on. Most street-side food vendors operate in the same location everyday. Therefore, they depend on regulars to drive their businesses. Food is usually fresh and prepared on the spot. It’s important to remember that just like a proper sit-down restaurant, these vendors are not in the business of making people sick. Repeat business simply doesn’t work that way. If there are lots of locals eating somewhere, it’s a good sign that the eats are probably freshly prepared and worth trying.
Sound – Listen for laughter, chatter and clinking of metal cooking instruments grazing pans and grills. Now, follow these sounds and food will quickly follow. Where eaters are happy, good food can usually be found.
Smell – Get your nose in there! That’s right, you’ll never insult a Thai with a big smile and a hearty curiosity for new foods. Casually point to the food being prepared and try to take in some of the fumes coming from the grill (just don’t put your beak right in the dish). Thais are very friendly by nature and really get a kick out of foreigners being interested in their way of life. Nine out of ten times, the vendor will probably offer you a free sample of what they are selling. Now that’s salesmanship!
Touch – To make sure you look like a local that knows what you’re doing, be sure you are using the right eating implements at all times. First step, watch people dining to see how and what they’re eating with. There’s nothing more embarrassing than using your fork as the main element for shoveling food in your mouth. Thais traditionally use a fork and spoon to consume most meals. The fork is used as the guider (much like westerners use a knife) and the spoon as the main scooping implement. Putting a fork in your mouth is looked at much like putting a knife in your mouth would be in the west – not very polite.
Many westerners are surprised by the lack of chopsticks used for eating food in Thailand. These tricky instruments are also an import to Thailand from China. Consequently, Thais really only use them for eating things like noodle soups and a select number of Chinese specialty dishes.
One visitor relates a funny story of demanding chopsticks during his first meal in Thailand, after being handed a fork and spoon by the food stall proprietors. The traveler just wanted to fit in and do like the locals. As the story goes, it took the proprietors about five minutes to locate two sticks for him and they looked completely puzzled as he ate his dish. It wasn’t until much later in his trip that he found out Thais almost always use a spoon and fork for munching.
When to use your hands is another matter completely. Thais are quite polite when eating and there are only certain foods such as pieces of grilled chicken or sticky rice that are acceptably eaten with one’s mitts. The best rule of thumb is to once again look at what the locals are doing. When in real doubt, stick to your trusty fork and spoon.
Taste – The only way to be sure about a new food is to try it – first hand. If it looks weird, give it a shot. After all, that’s why you go to different places, to try new things. If you don’t like it, politely spit it into a napkin, smile and if all else fails, laugh. A good hearty laugh will cure almost any uncomfortable situation in the Kingdom. Thai food is world famous for being spicy – knowing your limit is key. Once again, the best way to find out your threshold is by trying and trying and trying. To ensure your dish is not so spicy it leaves you looking like a cartoon character that’s just blown a gasket, ask your server to make the dish ‘pet tamada’ (medium power). A last word of advice is to avoid a small pepper that looks like a little green bean. This beanish-looking pepper is put in certain foods to add spice, but not meant to be eaten. You’re sure to not make this mistake more than once, as an error in judgment will stay with you and remind you each time you visit the loo for the next few days.
To make sure you don’t offend anyone eating around you, remember never to blow your nose at the dinner table. This applies to all areas of eating from a five-star restaurant to a street-side food stall. There’s nothing more offensive to a Thai than someone clearing their nose between bites. The unfortunate part of eating spicy food is that it tends to make your nose run like a leaky tap. Always remove yourself from the eating environment and step around the corner to blow your honker.
No matter your taste or desired environment to enjoy a meal, you can find it all in Thailand. From sensational establishments, to simple food carts on the side of road, a tasty feed is rarely more than a short stroll away. Happy adventures in eating!