Whenever we have new foreign teachers at the school, I always take them out to a restaurant as part of their orientation. This is partly to introduce them to my favourite Thai food on a menu. But, I also want to point out to them some of the finer points of Thai dining. After all, it is highly likely that they will make friends with Thai people and they will be invited out to eat.
The first thing to note is the use of communal bowls. When you go to a restaurant, you don’t usually order food just for yourself. If there are four of you, then you should order at least five dishes. When I took some people out the other day, we ordered: a red chicken curry, mix stirred fried vegetables, lemon grass soup, chicken with cashew nuts and a steamed fish. That was just enough for the four of us. The chicken and cashew nuts were very tasty so we ordered more. Another favourite side dish is deep-fried prawns.
What happens next is that the waitress will put a couple of big spoonfuls of rice on your plate. You then help yourself to food from any of the dishes in any order. However, you should make a point of using the serving spoon from each dish. You should also only put a couple of spoonfuls on your plate at a time. Don’t fill your plate up as we do in the West. Just go back to help yourself to more.
In Thailand, it is traditional to use a spoon and fork. Chopsticks are actually a Chinese influence and you probably would only use them for eating noodles. Actually, when the students eat noodles at school they use a spoon and fork. I don’t think that is because they are not old enough to use chopsticks. Maybe the administration is more worried about a student poking someone’s eye out!
Anyway, using just a spoon and fork is not as difficult as it might seem at first seem. Most ingredients in the meals are already cut up into bite sizes before cooking. So, unless you are eating a steak, there is no reason to have a knife. I usually also point out that the fork is only there to scoop food onto the spoon which is then raised to the mouth. On no accounts should you put the fork in your mouth. This is much the same as putting a knife in your mouth in Western culture.
At the orientation, I also give them some remarks about the drinks. Thai people always put ice in their beers. To me that seems strange. I just can’t handle drinking beer with ice. It is bad enough when they try to give you a straw at 7-Eleven when you buy a can of beer! Anyway, you can just tell them not to put any ice in (mai sai nam kaeng). However, Thai beer has more alcohol in it compared to Western beer BECAUSE you are expected to dilute it with ice! Just thought you should know.
When it comes to the time for paying the bill, it is usually up to the person who invited you out to pay. Either that or the oldest/richest person. There is a certain amount of prestige in being able to pay for everyone so let them do it. You should also remember that when asking for the bill in a restaurant you say “chek bin”. However, in a street food stall you can say “gep dtung” which is more colloquial. Don’t get that mixed up!