by Kristie Rodgers
Thailand is fortunate in being a land of plenty. Much of the land is fertile and since the population has always been small relative to the size of the country, famine has been all but unknown.
In the 13th century, King Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai ,the first Thai kingdom, recorded: “This land is thriving … in the water are fish, in the fields there is rice”. He might also have mentioned the wide range of tropical fruits, vegetables, and spices, to which have been added, since his day, a wealth of imports from South America, thriving in their new Oriental setting.
The range of Thai food dishes, as well as the variety and freshness of the ingredients, make for Thai food being one of the world’s great cuisines. Thais love to eat – six or seven times a day is common. Apart from flavor and freshness, Thais also appreciate the harmonious presentation of food. The dishes of even a modest meal will often be garnished with flowers and rosettes carved out of colorful vegetables and fruit.
Bangkok’s dining scene is one of the most cosmopolitan in Southeast Asia. Italian and French cuisines have been part of the culinary landscape for long, but now diners can also enjoy Japanese restaurants, Mexican and Tex-Mex bars and grills, and Sunday brunches at upscale hotels, in addition to traditional Thai food.
Most urban restaurants, especially, those serving Western food, open at about 11am and close between 10pm and midnight. This can mean that finding a Western-style breakfast is difficult, in which case a regular Thai omelette may have to serve as a substitute.
Virtually every major city and resort in Thailand has at least one free tourist listings magazine. They can be picked up in hotel reception lobbies, at banks, money changers, and restaurants. These list restaurants by cuisine and specialty, often giving details of how to get there, along with telephone numbers. Away from the major tourist destinations, the main hotels in every town will have air-conditioned restaurants offering a mixture of Thai and Chinese cuisine.
Thais have taken to Italian and Japanese food with enthusiasm; the most popular imports are pasta and sushi, found in some of the larger towns. Pizzas are another favorite, but Mc Donalds’s or Burger King outlets are relatively few and they have had to introduce local dishes, aimed at pleasing Thai palates, to attract Thai customers.
Over the last decade, a new coffee culture has sprung up across Thailand, with excellent, reasonably priced, and locally run coffee shops opening on every other street. Popular with Thais and foreigners alike, they do not include expensive Western franchises except in some larger cities.
Local coffee shops are still favored by older citizens, who prefer a strong, sweet coffee, filtered through a cotton bag. Served with condensed milk, the coffee is excellent for dunking paton go, a traditional deep-fried Chinese breakfast doughnut.
Some of the best and most reasonably priced food in Thailand can be found at any of the numerous roadside food stalls .Such establishments are usually clean and unpretentious and are often mobile, allowing the proprietors to push them home and clean them every night. The ingredients are openly displayed behind glass panels.
Fast cooking processes, such as flash-frying, grilling over charcoal, or boiling are often used. So the fare, invariably fresh, should also be well cooked and safe to eat. A sure way of measuring a stall’s popularity, as anywhere in the world, is by its patrons.
If there are plenty of locals sitting at the simple tables most stalls provide, chances are that the food is good. Visitors should not be surprised to find a businessman with a Mercedes parked nearby sitting at the same stall as a tuk-tuk driver. Thais from all sections of society know how to appreciate good, cheap food.
Menus are rarely in English, so it is a good idea to memorize the names of some of the tastier dishes from the food glossary. Alternatively, it is possible for visitors to point at a dish and ask to taste before ordering.
Buying meals is one of the cheapest aspects of a visit to Thailand. Prices are usually displayed – menus invariably list them next to each dish.
The prices for shellfish are often given by weight. The cost of alcohol, however, can often be more than the meal itself. In larger establishments and hotels of international class, a service charge and tax will usually be levied. These extra costs will be clearly detailed on the check.
Even at establishments which are small, prices are usually fixed and marked on a board. Bargaining is limited to bulk purchases in local markets selling fresh food.
Thailand offers some of the best seafood and it does not come any fresher than in the kingdom’s coastal regions. Visitors can choose from an excellent range, absolutely fresh and generally on display.
Everything from swordfish steak to lobster and giant crabs is available, but for conservation reasons, turtle and turtle’s eggs are no longer on the menu. Visitors should also avoid eating shark’s fin soup.
Tipping was once unknown, but its popularity is increasing as Thais grow accustomed to tips from tourists. Visitors should avoid applying a percentage: 10 percent of 50 baht may be appropriate, but 10 percent of an expensive meal would be far too much.
Eating Habits in Thailand
The Thai philosophy of nutrition is simple – eat if hungry. Nothing should stand in the way. Most Thais, moreover, eat little but often, sometimes snacking six or seven times a day. The concept of three meals simply does not apply in Thailand.
Although people do indeed eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner, they may also stop for a bowl of noodles, a fried snack, or a sweet at any time during the day.
Eating is a simple pleasure and does not involve complex rituals of etiquette, although visitors should note a few rules. Thais eat with a fork held in the left hand and a spoon held in the right hand.
The fork is usually used only to push food onto the spoon; eating straight from a fork is considered crude. Since food, especially meat, is cut into pieces before it is cooked, knives are not needed.
Thai noodle dishes are often strongly influenced by Chinese culinary traditions, and they are eaten using chopsticks and a spoon. Another exception to the general rule is khao niaw (sticky rice), which is eaten delicately using the fingers.
Food in Thailand is usually served communally in a series of large bowls. Only small rice bowls are reserved for individual use. Rice is traditionally served first, and then a spoon is used to ladle two or three spoonfuls from the communal bowls on top of the rice.
Feel free to ask for more if necessary. However, overloading the plate is regarded as uncouth since there is no need to hurry, and always plenty more in the kitchen.