Samui Wining & Dining
Spoon Feeding

Just why is it that you never see a knife on a Thai dinner table?


18-01How many times have you visited Thailand? Even if you’ve come over here quite a lot, you still might not be familiar with the way the Thai people eat their food. Of course, if you have Thai friends and have been invited to their house for a meal, that’s a different matter. But, unless you’re acquainted with Thai customs, then eating-in with a tableful of Thais might come as quite a jolt.

      For a start, we Westerners have grown up with the idea of ‘courses’ – appetisers, soups, mains and desserts. But with a Thai meal, you’ll find there’s a whole bunch of plates in the middle of the table, and you pick a bit from each one and add it to your own plate. You’ll usually find that there are dishes that contain aspects of the four cornerstones of Thai cuisine - sweet, spicy, salty and sour. And the polite way to eat is to take a little bit of one item at a time and add it to your plate with a spoonful of rice, then go back for something else.

      And then there’s the cutlery – at least you won’t have to worry about which one of a small arsenal of silver cutlery you should use, or the correct thing to do with your napkin! Paper napkins are the order of the day, for

wiping sticky fingers or dabbing at mouths. And the entire range of cutlery consists of just two items. The fork is kept in the left hand and held almost upright to act as a kind of stop, or sometimes to nudge the food onto your spoon. And the spoon, in the right hand, shunts the food towards the fork. And the result of their coming together is the hopefully effortless transfer of food onto your spoon.

      As a side note here, there’s a popular misconception that Thai food is eaten with chopsticks – it’s quite amusing to see this happen in Thai restaurants abroad, where over half the customers seem to take great pride in being able to do this. Chopsticks are an interloper, favoured by Chinese settlers, and only ever used by Thais to eat noodles.

     So why do the Thais not use knives at the table? It’s partly connected with history, and partly sheer practicality. But bear in mind that, only a couple of hundred years ago, we Europeans had no cutlery at all. Right up until the 18th century, everyone carried their own personal knife, used daily for numerous things, one of these being to cut food. Food was placed directly onto a slab of hollowed-out stale bread in lieu of a plate (a ‘trencher’) and the meat, gravy and bread were eaten using the fingers.

      And this is just how it used to be in Thailand, too. Remember, historically this was a nation of peasant farmers, right up until comparatively recent times. Peasants don’t get to eat the sort of meat and delicacies that the aristocracy enjoy. Fish and chicken were their staples, accompanied by rice and domestic vegetables. And their sticky rice was the equivalent of Europe’s trenchers; you could pat it into a ball and flatten it out, and then use it to wrap around the fish or poultry, just like a modern-day mini kebab or ‘wrap’. There was no need for knives either, as the cooks were adept at chopping everything up into small pieces so that they could be eaten in this way with sticky rice

       But this was to change when European traders began to visit Thailand. In 1684, the Thai King granted permission for the first foreign embassy in Thailand, representing the French nation and its diplomatic and trading interests. But it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that Thailand’s latest and most forward-looking monarch, HRH King Rama IV, King Mongkut, became keen to educate himself in the ways of the West – he saw this as not only enlightening, but as a desirable diplomatic tool, too. As a part of this initiative, he invited an English woman to teach him English, and to act as governess to his children. The legend of Miss Anna Leonowens, and her relationship to the King of Siam, has long since become immortalised in the 1956 movie, ‘The King and I’. And it was under her tutelage that King Mongkut was introduced to the use of knives, forks and spoons at the table.

         And thus it came about that, for the first time, the Thai Royal Court became aware of European cutlery, and Thai aristocrats were quick to follow suit and adopt the new fashion. Of course, even the Royal Court had no use for a personal knife at the table; Thai cuisine had already established itself based on the meat and poultry being chopped beforehand. But, as with all similar courtly fads and fashions, it didn’t take long before the humbler classes picked-up on these innovations. In the first instance it was the merchants, the village heads and elders, and similar others of some social standing. But soon the usefulness of these items became apparent to the masses, and spoons and forks became commonplace, usually being homemade from wood and beaten metal.

         And, if you eat out in any small Thai restaurant today, you’ll see that things haven’t changed so much since that time. OK, so the spoons and forks are no longer homemade. But they are stamped out of cheap and bendy tin, and an enthusiastic prod at a tough bit of steak will double them over in no time! Like people everywhere, Thais take familiar things for granted, and, even today, you’ll find that very few have any idea about how the story ‘spoon feeding’ came about – unlike yourself, of course, thanks to Samui Wining & Dining!


Rob De Wet


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