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Thai Food and Culture

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Typical meal in Bangkok, Thailand
Enzo/AGE Fotostock/Getty Images

The Importance of Food in Thai Culture

In Thailand, food forms a central part of any social occasions—and vice versa. That is, food often becomes the social occasion in itself, or reason to celebrate. This is partly due to the friendly, social nature of Thai people, but also because of the way in which food is ordered and eaten in Thailand.

In the West, a “normal” restaurant meal consists of a starter followed by the main course and dessert, with each individual ordering only for him or herself. In Thailand, there is no such thing as a starter; neither is there any dish that belongs only to one person. As a general rule, Thai diners order the same number of dishes as people present; however, all dishes are shared and enjoyed together. For this reason, it is better to have many guests at the table rather than just one or two. In fact, many Thais believe that eating alone is bad luck.

After the meal is over, there is no such thing as dispensing with leftovers. Throwing food away enrages the Thai “god of rice”, a female deity who watches over the people, ensuring everyone has enough to eat. Bad luck or even widespread famine may then ensue.

A typical Thai meal includes four main seasonings: salty, sweet, sour, and spicy. Indeed, most Thai dishes are not considered satisfying unless they combine all four tastes. When eating out, a group of Thai diners would order a variety of meat and/or fish dishes, plus vegetables, a noodle dish, and possibly also soup. Dessert may consist simply of fresh fruit, such as pineapple, or something more exotic, such as colourful rice cakes, depending on the region. (For Thai main course recipes, see: Classic Thai Recipes. For Thai desserts, see: Thai Dessert Recipes.

Aside from meals, Thais are renowned “snackers”. It is easy to pick up a quick but delicious snack for mere pennies along the roadside or at marketplaces in Thailand. Popular snacks consist of spring rolls, chicken or beef satay, raw vegetables with a spicy dip, soups, salads, and sweets. (Recipes for these and more Thai snacks can be found at: Thai Soups, Salads, Snacks & Appetizers.

The formal presentation of food is another important aspect of Thai culture. Developed primarily in the palace to please the King of Siam, Thai food presentation is among the most exquisite in the world. Serving platters are decorated with all variety of carved vegetables and fruits into flowers and other pieces of beauty (see my Thai chili flower pictured above). Palace-style stir-fries include elegantly carved vegetables within the dish itself. For such artwork, Thai chefs use a simple paring knife and ice water (the ice water prevents discoloration of the vegetables as they cut them). If you'd like to try some of this "artwork" yourself, either to decorate a party platter, or just for fun, check out: How to Create Thai Chilli Flowers. Or, <b>to make the Thai centerpiece pictured here, see: How to Create a Thai Centerpiece.

Thai Cutlery & Eating Style

Although the Chinese brought chopsticks to Thailand long ago, today most Thais prefer to use Western cutlery, though in their own special way. Thai cutlery generally consists of a fork and large spoon. The spoon is held in the right hand and used in place of a knife.

When eating, Thais do not combine various foods on their plates, but rather, they sample one dish at a time, always eaten with a mound of Thai fragrant rice on the side. Bowls are used mainly for soup, not in place of a plate (as in China).

Historical Background & Types of Dishes

The tastes of modern-day Thailand boast an ancient history. As early as the thirteenth-century, the Thai people had established what might be considered the heart of Siamese cuisine as we know it today: various types of meat and seafood combined with local vegetables, herbs and spices such as garlic and pepper, and served with rice. Later, the Chinese brought noodles to Thailand, as well as the introduction of the most important Thai cooking tool: the steel wok.

Thai cuisine is also heavily influenced by Indian spices and flavours, which is evident in its famous green, red, and yellow curries. However, it would be nearly impossible to confuse an Indian curry with one from Thailand. Although Thai curry incorporates many Indian spices in its pastes, it still manages to maintain its own unique flavour with the addition of local spices and ingredients, such as Thai holy basil, lemongrass, and galangal (Thai ginger).

Other influences on Thai cooking may be found in the countries near or surrounding Thailand, such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Burma, and Malaysia. Such plentiful and vast influences combine to create the complex taste of present-day Thai cooking—one of the fastest-growing and most popular of world cuisines today.

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