Samui Wining & Dining
Occasional FOOD

In Thailand, special occasions mean special food – and special ways of doing things, too!


16Everyone loves a party. And that’s true the world over. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Birmingham, Bremen or Bangkok – there’ll be people ready to jump in and boogie at the drop of a hat. And that goes for a spontaneous get-together after the pub, as much as it does for a fully-planned wedding with hundreds of guests. And then there are traditional celebrations and festivals, too – although some of these are more about respect than revelry.

      But even the most serious occasions share one thing in common. Food. Sometimes it’s offered as a sombre refreshment, at funerals for instance, and at other times it’s a rollicking banquet. And most weddings are a good example of this – joyous occasions that call for celebration, with lots of food a not a lot of sobriety!

      These festivities, however, fall clearly into two camps. One the one hand, there’s the event – traditional or occasional – where it’s customary to also eat, drink and be merry, such as weddings and birthdays. But there are other occasions where the associated food has a special or symbolic meaning – the Christian hot cross buns at Easter-time, for example.

      But we’re in Thailand. And this is a country that proudly celebrates its culture and traditions. And, here, you’ll find that celebrations are plentiful, with customs running deep. And, stirred in with the festivities and the food, there’s often a rich vein of symbolism and meaning.

       Take the festival of Loy Kratong that takes place throughout the Kingdom in November. This centuries-old tradition centres around illuminated boats made from bark and banana leaves that are floated on the water. The initial intention was to give thanks to the goddess of water. But it has now come to mean more than just this, today being tied to personal luck and harmony, too. Families – and loving couples – add their own ‘mojos’ to their boat. A lock of hair, nail cuttings, photographs, incense sticks, sticky rice. The sticky rice symbolises the bonding together of the family or couple. And good luck in their relationship is assured for the coming year if their two boats drift away without separating. And should they sink, heaven forbid, it’s the worst of bad luck. And then it’s off to celebrate with lots of food and drink – a vital element in all Thai ceremonies – even if you are drowning your sorrows because your boat’s gone down!

      One curiously regional festival worth mentioning here is the Surin Elephant Festival, held in the North East Region of Thailand also in November. All the local elephants are dressed-up and decorated, and then paraded impressively through the streets. After which they’re fed vast amounts of fresh fruit as a ‘thank you’ for all the work they’ve done. And then they’re packed off to bed whilst the real banquet begins!

      But there are lots of more day-to-day events across Thailand that give rise to festivities. Weddings, anniversaries – and even funerals. Thailand is a country where there’s an active religion which runs constantly through all levels of society. And so occasions such as the annual presentation of new robes to the local monks (thod kathin), the building of a new Buddha image-hall, or honouring an abbot who has been elevated in rank, are joyful occasions and celebrated with much ritual and feasting.

         But there’s one occasion where tradition, religion, symbolism and food are all woven together – plus a jolly good party, too. It’s possibly the most common celebration, and it’s just crammed with symbols, portents and omens. There are more good-luck charms here than there is on sale next door to a lottery ticket shop –and that’s saying something. I’m talking about a Thai wedding.

         At the beginning of the ceremony, there’s a range of special dishes that are expected, and the bride’s family won’t accept the groom unless he’s brought these. According to tradition, there are three things that make the food suitable for such an occasion. The first is simply its name. The second is the symbolic significance that the dish has. And the third is its colour.

         For example, amongst the savoury dishes there must always be khanom jeen nam yaa – round white noodles served with a spicy sauce. The noodles are important for their symbolism – they are long and have a chewy texture, and represent something that lasts a long time and is not easily broken. They also stand for co-operation and harmony, as they’re difficult to make and lots of patience is needed.

         And you’ll always find the mild massaman curry included, because of its name. The final syllable, man, means ‘firm dedication’ and ‘achieving goals through diligence and persistence’. Again, the dish is not easy to make, requiring time and effort, and so also symbolises harmony and patience.

         But, when it comes to colours, you’ll see lots of red. Red is the colour of blood, and is symbolic of fertility. Thus, at every wedding, you’ll find a red heart, made out of sticky rice (khao neeo dang) which, hopefully, will promote love, unity and fertility in the years to come. But, oddly, nothing’s allowed to be written in red anywhere as, in this case, it’s also considered to be the colour of death. Hmm ...

         There must be about a dozen other traditional wedding dishes like this, each with its own symbolism and meaning. However, whatever other goodies might be piled on the table at the wedding feast, there’s a couple of things that are not. They’re banned. For example, you’ll never see sour and spicy salads or soups such as that otherwise great favourite, tom yam gung (sour and spicy prawn soup). Because the word ‘yam’ suggests the Thai words riyam or rayam, which, roughly translated, is a low slang for ‘despicable’. Likewise, the lesser-known, bland, soup-like dish called tom jued is similarly avoided, because blandness is something that should have no part in married life. And quite right, too!

         Of course, just as in rural areas of any other country, Thailand’s also got lots of interesting and curious regional folk festivals and events, and all of them tied-in with particular dishes in some way. But the examples here are the ones you’re most likely to come across.

         But, it really doesn’t matter what country you’re in; special occasions and food go hand-in-hand. And, whether you call it a ‘celebration’ or a ‘gin liyang’ – a party is still a party, in any language!


Rob De Wet


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