Samui Wining & Dining
Don’t Flip the Fish!

A short guide to table manners in Thailand.

Don’t Flip the Fish!Table manners and etiquette can be a daunting prospect when eating out in a foreign country, but don’t be put off. In Thailand the fundamental idea of eating is the enjoyment of the food and of the company around you. So relax and remember a few simple rules and you’ll not go far wrong. Even if you do the Thais are very good-natured and forgiving in these circumstances.

The first thing you’ll notice is that the Thais don’t use knives, unless they are dining in a Western style restaurant. From the street-side stalls to 5-star restaurants you will be supplied with a spoon and fork to eat Thai dishes. Granted, at the street stalls you’ll have to grab your own cutlery from the aluminium utensil box on the table, while in the five-star restaurants the cutlery will be far superior and brought to your table wrapped in a cloth napkin, but in either case your manners should be the same.

Hold the spoon in your right hand and the fork in your left hand; only the spoon should go into your mouth. Never put the fork into your mouth – this is very rude and would be the equivalent of a Westerner eating from their knife.

Chopsticks aren’t used to eat Thai food so don’t ask for a pair. Thais, however, do use chopsticks to eat noodles, as well as Chinese and Japanese food.

Often Thais eat lunch at small street-side restaurants, opting for a one dish lunch, a plate of rice and a topping of some kind, maybe a curry or steamed chicken. Take a seat at one of the tables. You may have to share a table. This is fine but do not force conversation; act as if you are sitting at a private table. Once the food is brought to you it is acceptable to add one of the many condiments on the table, chilli flakes, fish sauce, salt and vinegar to suit your own palate. In some places they may also have laid out some fresh vegetables on the table such as small cucumbers, Thai eggplants and green beans. Again feel free to help yourself but only take as much as you are going to eat.

Eating is a communal activity in Thailand. It’s supposed to be a leisurely affair so always take your time with the meals whether dining with friends or business associates. When ordering, do not order just one dish for yourself that you alone will eat at the meal. Ordering the dishes is a joint decision, but do let the host or your friends know if there is anything that you do not like or cannot eat. They will not be offended. If it is a more formal occasion you may wish to express your desire quietly to the senior member of the party before you go out.

When to start eating depends pretty much on who you are dining out with. If you are having a get-together with friends, then you can start helping yourself to the food as soon as the first plate arrives. In a more formal situation it may be best to wait until the more senior member of the party starts to eat, or invites everyone to eat before you start the meal.

Only take as much from the array of dishes on the table as you are going to eat. Also only take from one dish at a time to put on your plate. Do not heap up your plate with food. One to three dishes on your plate is acceptable. The exceptions to this rule are monks who place everything in their alms bowls. You’ll notice everything is mixed up. The monks do this as a spiritual practice, the idea being that if the food is mixed up there’ll be no outstanding taste. Taste will therefore have been transcended but if you’re not a monk and you heap up your plate you’ll just appear rude. Of course when you are at a buffet maybe you wish to take a few more goodies, but still don’t pile your plate too high.

When served a dish which has lemongrass stalks or pieces of lime leaf or other large seasoning ingredients you can leave these at the side of your plate or in the dish provided. If the dish has chicken or pork skin and you do not like the skin, don’t take meat with skin from the main pot since one of party may wish to eat it.

The most senior member of the party, especially in business situations will sit at the middle of the table. It’s only acceptable to talk business if your boss starts to talk business first.

There are some rules that are pretty common the world over, such as not talking with your mouth full. If you use a toothpick cover your mouth with your hand or a napkin. Something that’s very important: don’t blow your nose at the table.

Refilling drinks whether it’s beer or tea has its own etiquette. Always be alert to your neighbour’s glass, and as soon as it is less than half full it’s polite to refill the glass or cup. Do not refill your own glass but always wait for your neighbour. You may gently prod him by topping up his glass slightly even if he doesn’t need it..

In the fishing communities of the South and East of Thailand, there is also one unique rule – don’t flip the fish. When you are at a seafood restaurant the fish may be served whole but do not flip the fish to get to the flesh underneath. The belief is that if you flip the fish then a fishing boat will capsize out at sea.

When out with friends everyone shares the bill, or sometimes the most senior person will pay. When out in formal situations the waiter will bring the bill to the man he perceives as the most senior of the group. Do discreetly offer to pay at least your portion of the bill, but if he declines do not push the issue as he will ‘lose face’.

Tipping is not customary in Thailand but I always leave a tip to show my appreciation. This is really at your own discretion. In a fancy restaurant most people tend to tip.

So there you have it. Follow these simple rules and you won’t go far wrong!


Natalie Hughes


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