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Thai food! Such rich flavors that come from a rich cultural background, including unique table manners and utensils. Hands, forks and spoons are Thai table staples; however, only occasionally do they use chopsticks.
Chopsticks are not traditionally used to eat Thai food. Thai dishes are commonly eaten with hands, forks, and spoons. Chopsticks are avoided in Thai culture for the sake of functionality and because of cultural-based elements. An exceptions is for Chinese inspired noodle dishes such as Kauai-Tiao.
Understanding these different elements may give you a peek into Thai culture, broaden your chopstick understanding, and increase your overall food experience.
Why Thai Food is Not Eaten with Chopsticks
Chopsticks are used most frequently China, Japan, Malaysia, Korea, and Vietnam. While Thailand is very close to a lot of these countries, the food from this country is usually not usually eaten with chopsticks. This is both for pracitical reasons and cultural ones.
Let’s dive in deeper to learn why.
While a lot of places in the US and other countries have dishes that are prepared individually on plates and the households tend to be on the smaller side, Thai food is usually served for many people.
In Thailand, family dinner is a communal thing. Typically, in Thai culture, multiple generations live in one household. This means when dinner comes around, it is not just immediate family, it’s aunts, uncles, cousins grandparents, and maybe some close friends who gather at the table. What many Americans would consider a family reunion is a daily family gathering.
When everyone comes for dinner the deconstructed dishes are laid out in the middle and each member of the family has a small plate in front of them. But wait, what does this have to do with chopsticks?
As explained before, in Thai culture you create your meal at the dinner table as you go.
This is part of the conventional reason chopsticks are not conducive to Thai culture. Trying to put together your meal while crisscrossing all of the extended family is much easier without wooden sticks. Rather, spoons and forks or hands are the utensils of choice.
Sticky Rice and Chopsticks Don’t Mix
Sticky rice is a staple with every Thai meal. Sticky rice is the base of many of the dishes. If rice is not part of the main dish, it is most definitely served on the side. It is aptly named given its sticky texture and consistency.
“Chopsticks are for noodle stalls and ‘Chinese’ restaurants.” -MichaelHerzfeld, Professor of Anthropology at Harvard University
The frequency of the use of sticky rice and the lack of functionality of chopsticks in maneuvering such rice is another reason chopsticks are not used often.
In Thai culture, the sticky rice is rolled in the palm of one hand into a ball. Keeping the sticky rice in that hand, other main dishes are picked up and the combination is dipped in the sauce. The entire colorful array of textures and tastes is then delightfully eaten.
The rolling motion is central to properly eating Thai food and is obviously very difficult to achieve while using chopsticks.
If Not Chopsticks, What is Thai Food Eaten With?
Chopsticks are out, like we said.
But what are you supposed to eat Thai food with?
Hands are the Traditional Utensil
In Thai culture, hands are the traditional utensil and are a table necessity.
Although this may sound a bit unnerving at first (especially in the current pandemic circumstances) there are multiple reasons that eating Thai food is a hands-on activity.
As mentioned earlier, Thai food often consists of sticky rice (more on this in a moment), a wide variety of deconstructed dishes, and sauces. This setup, with all the different components, allows for more mixing and matching.
So, when you are eating traditional Thai food, you are most likely making it as you go. Grabbing a handful of sticky rice, rolling it in your hand, adding some meat to accompany it, and finishing it off with a dip into a zesty sauce.
This style of eating makes using chopsticks extremely impractical and unconventional since you typically hold all of the ingredients in one hand.
Forks and Spoons
Despite the use of hands, there is a place for spoons and forks at a Thai table. There is a traditional form in this as well.
Spoons are held in the right hand and forks in the left. The spoon is the main utensil while the fork is used to push food onto the spoon. The fork does not often enter the mouth at all and spoons take the place of knives when it comes to cutting.
However, since Thai food is typically served in pre-cut bits, cutting is rarely necessary. You may be wondering why Thais use forks and spoons while they typically reject chopsticks.
It is speculated that the fork and spoon culture was adopted into Thai culture in the 19th century during the rule of King Rama IV. This was part of an overall cultural reform process in order to avoid occupation.
Since the threat of colonization was coming mostly from France and Britain, those customs were adopted in place of Chinese culture. Part of this shows in their use of spoons and forks over chopsticks which we can observe today.
The Noodle Dish Exception
Despite everything you just read, there are a couple of exceptions, per the usual. Thais do use chopsticks on occasion; typically they are used with dishes that are Chinese-inspired or at street vendors.
Essentially, chopsticks are the Thai equivalent of a red and white checkered plastic container that your New York-style street vendor hotdogs come in. They have an appropriate culture and place they fit in but are not traditional.
Dishes that you would commonly eat with chopsticks are Kauai-Tiao, Khao son, and other noodle soup dishes.
Curry, roasted duck, and dried fish are examples of dishes that one would not eat with chopsticks at a Thai restaurant.
Whether or not you use chopsticks for the correct dishes may not seem to be of too much consequence. However, understanding a culture of eating that has functional and historical roots make your mealtime experience all the better.