Understanding Thai Food Culture – What I’ve Learnt

Thai food Culture is one of the most internationally spread cuisines, and is often considered a favorite. Having spent some time in Thailand, I’ve noticed that they have a very strong food culture, which I feel is very special and unique to Thailand.

I noticed many things myself, but it wasn’t until I had that private cooking course in Chiang Mai that I got a true understanding of the Thai peoples food culture, and started to appreciate the little details they pay much attention to.

Here are some typical things that I found stood out in the Thai food culture:

- The thai food culture is very social

In fact, I rarely saw a Thai person eating alone.

Usually they eat in groups, either with family or friends.

The Thai people are a very social people in general, and eating is something they like to do together.

Even at the restaurants and shops, all the staff sat down together at lunch time, with a big meal for everyone to share.

- There is no specific meal for Breakfast, Lunch or Dinner.

They eat whatever meal they want. They can eat fried rice for breakfast, noodles for lunch and soup for dinner, or the opposite way around.

They never eat cornflakes and yoghurt as a meal. My cooking teacher GayRay told me that they see western meals such as cornflakes, toast and even pizza as just a snack.

- They balance the fundamental senses in their meals

What I love about the Thai food culture is that they always balance their meals with the five fundamental taste senses. In the West, we usually choose one or two per meal, either salty and spicy, or just sweet.

In Thai food they combine all five senses; salty, spicy, sour, sweet and bitter – into one and the same meal. This makes the food so interesting for your taste buds!

- They Always Make an Effort About Presentation

No matter whether it’s a street food restaurant or a hotel, your meal will always be served with pretty decorations.

This could be flowers, nicely cut cucumbers or fruit.

-  They don’t eat with chop sticks or use a knife

Unless you’re eating a western style steak, you will be served with a fork and spoon. Thai people eat with their spoon in the right hand, and the fork in the left.

They often have chop stick available, which is something influenced from China, but most Thai people can’t actually eat with chop sticks (this is what they told me, and I haven’t seen any Thais using chop sticks yet).

- The Thai people love snacking

Thai people love to snack, and often do so when they’re on their way somewhere. Sweets and desserts are usually not eaten on meal times, but as snack.

When you’re invited to a Thai person’s house you’re always greeted with a welcome snack, which for the record was the best snack I’ve ever had.

They put a plate on the table with roasted peanuts, coconut (sweet), ginger (bitter), lime (sour), shallots, and chili (spicy), which you fold into a betel leaf, drizzle some palm sugar and eat together with your host (shove it all in at once).

It’s a feast as well as a shock for your taste buds, but I couldn’t get enough of it!

- Thai people never waste food

Thai people always finish the food on the plate. They believe that wasting rice brings bad luck.

When I think about it, all the healthy rules I’ve learned about food, what you should eat and how you should eat, the Thai people follow.

They don’t eat dessert after meals, they makes sure to get all the five food senses and they don’t eat bread and cornflakes for breakfast but proper meals …

(photo credit: Marshall AstorDave_B_)

27 Responses to Understanding Thai Food Culture – What I’ve Learnt

  1. Jodi Ettenberg April 3, 2011 at 8:45 am #

    I love eating in Thailand because every hour of the day is a time for food. In eating tiny portions and essentially snacking throughout, you end up consuming less in the long run and being healthier for it! One quick correction with the chopsticks: they are used, but for soup. Thai cuisine is fun because there are different etiquettes for different foods: Isaan foods are often eaten with your hands (sticky rice in the right hand, scooping up the food), rice and noodle dishes with the spoon and fork, and soups with chopsticks and a spoon. The chopsticks present at a restaurant inevitably means that it has soup on the menu.

    Fun roundup and I’m so glad you enjoyed the food here! What was your favourite dish?

    • Sofia - As We Travel April 5, 2011 at 6:42 am #

      Thanks for the correction Jodi, and you’re so right that every hour is a time for food!

      My favorite dish was, without a doubt, Khao Soi – yum!

      • Jodi Ettenberg April 5, 2011 at 3:19 pm #

        Excellent choice! :)

  2. TotalTravelBug April 3, 2011 at 1:07 pm #

    This is really interesting. I always wondered about the meal they ate for ‘breakfast’, I didn’t realise that they don’t have a particular meal at a particular time. I love having noodles and rice for breakfast because it fills me for the day. It doesn’t feel adequate now I’m home and have cereal for breaky, I’m starving again by 10am!

    I once had a Thai tour guide who wasn’t keen on Western food. We once encouraged him to try a lamb shank which he loved but covered with fresh chillies. A surprisingly good combination!

    • Sofia - As We Travel April 5, 2011 at 6:45 am #

      Having a real meal for breakfast makes such a difference, I agree, cereal just doesn’t fill you up the same way.

      Yeah they use chillies A LOT in Thailand, and I’m getting used to the idea of adding it to the most random meals as well :)

  3. Gillian Duffy April 3, 2011 at 1:57 pm #

    I love, love, love the food in Thailand! It’s interesting to hear more about the culture of eating there…thank you! Cheers!

    • Sofia - As We Travel April 5, 2011 at 6:47 am #

      You’re welcome Gillian!

      I agree, Thai food is pretty amazing, and for me it’s even better when you know a bit about the actual food culture :)

  4. Laurel April 3, 2011 at 2:01 pm #

    Thai people also love talking about their next meal. I would be eating breakfast with my Thai friends and they would be talking about what to eat for lunch and dinner. Loved it and have never talked so much about food in my life.

    • Sofia - As We Travel April 5, 2011 at 6:50 am #

      That’s a great example which shows how important food is to Thai people in their daily life.

      Thanks for sharing Laurel.

  5. andi_fisher April 3, 2011 at 4:32 pm #

    I dated (and was briefly married to) a Thai guy for five years and this brought back a lot of good memories of sitting around a table and enjoying snacks. I enjoy any culture that enjoys food and the wonderfully happy people of Thailand enjoy it so much!

    • Sofia - As We Travel April 5, 2011 at 7:02 am #

      Thanks for sharing your story, I agree, I love the culture of Thailand and the importance they place on food.

  6. Andy Hayes April 3, 2011 at 6:50 pm #

    Yum. Am jealous about the cooking class – sounds awesome :)

    • Sofia - As We Travel April 5, 2011 at 6:52 am #

      The cooking class was definitely a highlight of our trip through Thailand, strongly recommend it!

  7. englishwhirled April 3, 2011 at 6:39 pm #

    Great blog post — can’t wait to travel in Thailand and discover the fab foods and lifestyle.

    • Sofia - As We Travel April 5, 2011 at 6:51 am #

      You’ll love it, there is food around every corner, and the life style is so different from the west.

  8. Heather on her travels April 3, 2011 at 8:10 pm #

    Cool, I’m not sure if I can imagine a meal with salty, spicy, sour, sweet and bitter all together – as you say our Western food must seem very bland in comparison

    • Sofia - As We Travel April 5, 2011 at 6:55 am #

      Yeah it’s hard to imagine, and mixing them all together is a bit of a shock to the taste buds, but so much more interesting!

  9. CJ April 4, 2011 at 5:47 am #

    Combining all five senses into the same meal sounds interesting. I have a gluten intolerance so the Thai diet sounds like something that would very much agree with me. Do you know if the noodles are wheat or rice based?

    • Sofia - As We Travel April 5, 2011 at 6:59 am #

      They use many kinds of noodles, but rice noodles are among the most common ones.

      You can usually ask them to use the type of noodles that you want.

  10. Erica Kuschel April 4, 2011 at 10:08 am #

    Thai food is still so new to me. The fact they cover all tastes is fascinating though and I cannot wait to try the real thing.

    • Sofia - As We Travel April 5, 2011 at 7:05 am #

      I didn’t used to like Thai food, but once I actually got to Thailand and tried the ‘real deal’ my opinion about it has changed.

  11. Joshua Johnson April 6, 2011 at 9:30 pm #

    Yum! Ever since my trip to Southeast Asia a few years back I have eaten Thai food at least once every week or two…and last night my wife and I ventured to our fav Thai spot ( and the BEST Thai place in Seattle ), so this post was the perfect post Panang curry read!

  12. Sandy April 19, 2011 at 6:19 am #

    I lived in Thailand for 7 years and it was fun to read your blog.
    I remember when I first arrived, I could not believe I could smell bbq at 6am! It took some time to get used to the fork and spoon method but it actually feels better than a knife. One thing I could never get used to was the “no spicy” concept that Thais can not grasp. Whenever I would ask for no spicy or no chili, sure enough there would at least be five floating around.

  13. Richard Barton May 5, 2011 at 5:31 am #

    My Thai wife eats a minimum 6 times a day albeit good healthy food. I just don’t know where she puts it.

  14. Jessica Vestby September 5, 2011 at 10:18 am #

    Just a question but how many meals would a Thai person aproximatly have in per day? 

  15. Sandy January 9, 2012 at 6:13 pm #

    Any good Thai spots in North County San Diego?

  16. Paulosilva8200 February 28, 2012 at 7:27 am #

    yes, but when it comes to BQQ grills, they the worst, sea food with no spicys , just plain grill with no flavour, and then they place a ball with crash chiillis bathed in oil, it really sucks, and i dont understand when all restaurants do the same way, when all turist they complain about the same, one day one thai man will do bbq for the turist taste and not for himself, and that person will win, in malaysia they make bbq with butter and garlic with leman and extra salt, and they pass every 2 mins in the grill, and they taste great, in thailand, they burn the fish with flames, like the squid supposte to cook for about 20 m, in thailand, they burn it in flames for 1 min, and then on the table, burned outside and inside is raw, it really sucks, i am more a gourmet person, and i think thailand is a lost hope as a country, they build resorts on the beach when they only give 2 meters of space, and still they dont get it, that its the nature that we want to see