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Food, Dining, & Drinks in Thailand

Historic Diet

Thai Food - Pad Thai
Pad Thai

Thailand is a land that stretches across climatic zones north and south so the food and historic diet also varies with the seasons. Despite this diversity, many of the foods that made up the historic diet are common throughout the country as its borders stand today. In the mainland the orange is indigenous, while further south foods like the breadfruit and banana were found. However, most of the foods arrived with settlers and later with traders.

The historic diet of the people that live in what is today Thailand was plant-based, but plenty of plants existed in the region, or arrived with early settlers, including bananas, breadfruit, mangos, guavas, kampot peppers, durian, mangosteen, taro, cassava, wheat, rice, spinach, garlic, shallots, beans, and spices including cardamom. The animal life was also diverse, but made up little of the historic diet. While some meats were eaten, fish was more popular, including trey dang dau, carp, catfish, and others in the rivers and lakes and mackerel, tuna, red snapper, anchovy, shrimp, and crab in the oceans.

Culinary Influences

Thai Food - Coconut curry
Coconut curry

Thailand's cuisine today is the culmination of dozens of influences, most of which are neighboring influences. Even through the lucrative spice trade with Europe in the 1500s, Thailand received only a limited number of influences from Europe as the country remained independent and much of this trade bypassed Thailand.

The first, the greatest, and still the most obvious change to the diet of Thailand came with the arrival of ethnic Chinese people thousands of years ago. The Thai people today are distantly related to these people and the two countries still share a similar diet, although later spices and ingredients have significantly altered the cuisine since. The Chinese brought numerous dishes and foods to the region, including rice, noodles, and soy sauce, all of which are common ingredients in the food of Thailand today.

Over thousands of years the people also regularly interacted with the neighboring people and these people introduced new ingredients and dishes to Thailand. As Indians settled in Malaysia and other regions, curries and numerous Indian spices arrived to Thailand. As most of these influences arrived from the south, coconut milk also became a popular addition to these foods. While foods in the north and west tend to be milder and reflect the foods of both Laos and Myanmar today.

In the 1500s the Europeans arrived to the region, however generally bypassing Thailand in favor of the southern water routes. None-the-less, the Europeans brought new foods from both Europe as well as the Americas through trading. Unlike Thailand's neighbors to the south, many of these new additions were added at a minimum (with the exception of the chili pepper and a couple others), but nearly all can be found in Thai dishes if one looks long enough. From the Americas came maize (corn), potatoes, chili peppers, peanuts, tomatoes, and sweet peppers. From Europe came breads, pastries, cakes, and some dairy products, including butter and cheese. Spices also arrived from every direction, but again the spices were limited in their impact as some became more popular than others, but few arrivals from this era are regular items in Thai cuisine today.

In more recent times, Thailand has become a center of trade, business, and technology based in Bangkok and with this growth has, in many ways, become one of the major international hubs of the region. With this came foreigners and outside foods and technologies, which have altered the food even further. Frozen foods and fast foods are growing in popularity, especially in Bangkok and in resort towns in the south. However, these foods have yet to replace traditional foods, but rather only add new dishes to the diet.

Staple Foods

Nam Pla: not a staple in the true sense, nam pla is a fish sauce used in most Thai dishes
Noodles: noodles are a common base in numerous dishes
Rice: rice is usually cooked and served as sticky rice and accompanies most meals

Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes

Kuaytiaw: soup with noodles, vegetables, and usually chicken or pork
Pad Thai: a noodle dish generally served with vegetable and a meat along with local spices

Dining Etiquette

Dining in Thailand has many aspects that seem more European than Southeast Asian as dining rules, especially in Bangkok and in resort towns, have been altered in numerous ways. Due to this changing landscape there are few rules that must be followed, although respecting your elders is rule number one.

When meeting with locals try to arrive on time and remove your shoes before entering the house or restaurant if others have done so before you. Greet everyone upon arrival, beginning with the elders and wait to be shown a seat as elders are generally seated first and your host may show you to a pre-assigned seat.

As you sit down you may encounter a few different settings. In more traditional homes, especially in towns and villages the people may still eat with their right hand; however this is a dying art. If this is the case though be sure to only use your right hand. In some areas, most commonly along the Vietnamese border, chopsticks are commonly used. Chopsticks are also used for some dishes, including noodles throughout the country, but in most restaurants forks and spoons are available upon request. Finally, the most common sighting in Thailand today is that presence of a fork and spoon, along with chopsticks if noodles are being served. In this case use the spoon in the right hand to eat from and hold the fork in the left hand to push food onto the spoon, but don't eat from the fork. Only in high end restaurants will you find a knife on the table.

When the meal arrives, the dishes are generally placed in the middle of the table for all to share; serving and eating begins in order of honor (and men are served first, then women) so don't begin until you're directed to do so by your host. If serving yourself, be sure to never touch the serving spoon to your plate as your plate is considered unclean. Among the dishes will probably be a soup and a starch, typically rice. These dishes, as well as anything served in a bowl should be eaten by bringing the bowl up to your mouth. In order to accomplish this you are expected to have both hands on the table at all times, even having your elbows on the table is acceptable in most situations.

When you are finished eating, be sure to finish all the food on your plate and in your bowl as leaving any food behind is considered wasteful and rude. Once the food is done, place your chopsticks together on top of your rice bowl or on the chopstick rest next to your plate if you have one. If you have a fork, spoon, and knife place these together on the plate at the 5:00 position to indicate that you have finished eating.

If you are dining in a restaurant you may have to go to the register to get and pay for your bill as servers will rarely bring a bill to your table as that is considered rude. In restaurants catered to tourists a service charge of about 10% is sometimes included. If no service charge is included leave about 5-10% of the bill or just round up as the generous locals do.

Celebrations & Events

Although Thailand has numerous celebratory events, few have close ties to particular foods served at each. All of these events, including weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, New Year, etc., usually serve authentic Lao dishes and personal favorites for those who are being celebrated.

Drinks

Any international Thai restaurant serves what they call "Thai tea," but in Thailand it is just called tea, or cha yen; this tea is served with sweetened condensed milk over ice and is hugely popular. Coffee, soft drinks, juices, and other popular drinks are also available throughout the country.

The alcoholic beverage of choice is beer in Thailand and the country brews a few domestically, including "Singha." Oddly, after beer whiskey is quite popular and available nearly everywhere. Other hard liquors and wine also exist, but are not as popular; rice wines similar to sake are more prevalent than grape wines.

The tap water is generally not safe to drink in Thailand, but in Bangkok it is considered safe. The most cautious course of action is to entirely avoid the tap water and items that could be made from or with the water, such as ice, fruits, and salads. If you do decide to drink the local tap water in Bangkok first check with your local hotel or guesthouse to guarantee the cleanliness of the water. If the water is safe, remember that many people may have trouble adjusting to the local tap water as it will most certainly be different from what your system is used to if you are not from the region.

This page was last updated: March, 2013