Chapter 7: Ordering food at a restaurant and Thai dining etiquette

Learn to speak Thai

Thailand is heaven for food… And if you’re staying in Bangkok, you can find food everywhere, on the opposite side of your luxury hotel, in the market near your condominium, in the department stores, on both sides of the street in the business areas, or along the footpath to your office. But what has made Thai food so famous is not about the quantity. If you have ever eaten Thai food be- fore, you would know that ‘delicious’ or ‘yummy’ could be the underrated word. I tried to find an ad- jective to explain the taste of Thai food and have found this writer/blogger (don’t ask me which one cause I don’t remember) used the word ‘grandeur’ to describe it. Ah!… what a smart word-choice.

Similar to food of other Asian countries, Thai food is rich with the mix of herbs, spices and special seasoning which some of them could be disgusting in the eyes of foreigners. Sometimes their re- action toward Thai seasoning is hilarious. I remember once when I was cooking “Khao khai- jiao” (Thai scrambled egg on top of rice) in the dormitory’s kitchen, my Swedish friend came by in curiosity. He smelled the Thai fish sauce that I used and cried out startlingly “What is this!? It smells like SHIT!!” “Do you really eat this thing?” Yes, we do. “Nam-pla” or Thai fish sauce is an essential part of every Thai dish. Like it or not, if you’ve ever eaten Thai food, you must’ve swal- lowed it. Fortunately, my friend didn’t run out of the kitchen but if you ask me if he got a chance to eat this delicious dish or not, the answer is Noooo!!!

“Nam-pla” or Thai fish sauce is an example of unique Thai seasoning. It is amber-colored liquid extracted from the fermentation of fish with sea salt. Instead of sprinkling salt on food like the westerners do, we usually dash Nam-pla into whatever we cook to add the salty taste. Other Thai seasonings you should get to know include “Pla-ra”, the seasoning produced by fermenting fish with rice bran mostly used in Isan (northeastern) food and “Ka-pi”, the fermented shrimp paste mostly applied to southern dishes.

Besides the seasoning, we also have gross menus like “Yum khai mod-daeng” made of red ant eggs, “Gung ten” made of live shrimp, “Ka-pom yang” and “Noo-na yang” made of tree lizard and field mouse, “Lab luead” made of minced meat with blood and many more. Some of them can look horrible and even make “Som-tum Poo Pla-ra” (green papaya salad with crab and fermented fish) become completely simple. However, most of these menus are likely to be found in the arid north- eastern region where people had to eat everything they could find to survive. I don’t think we have this scarcity problem now but if we do, we can go grab MAMA at any time. It’s cheap and conve- nient.

Among those eccentric menus, “Ma-laeng Thod” and “Rod-duan” seem to be the most popular. The first one is deep fried bugs (normally grasshoppers and crickets) while the second is deep fried bamboo caterpillar. Ten years ago you would find it at the end of the soi (alley) near the con- struction sites where the labors from the northeast came to work but today, you can find them everywhere including in the department stores, mini marts (well packed in aluminum foil bags as high-protein snack), vending stands and online shops! Clearly, these menus have been leveled up and already well-known as our national dishes!

But hold on… the truth is insects and all those bizarre menus are not our everyday food. Although some of them can be found easily on the streets of Bangkok, the rest are seasonal dishes or af- fected by local people and those seeking exotic food. If you really want to know what we eat in real life, the best way is to explore our fridge and kitchen. And here are something you might find in our storehouse…

Chapter 7: Vocabulary

English Thai English Thai
Beef Wua, Nuea-wua Lime, Lemon Ma-nao
Chili Phrik Meat Nuea
Chili paste Nam-phrik Meat ball Luk-chin
Chicken Gai, Nuea-gai Onion Hom-hua-yai
Coconut Ma-prao Rice Khao
Coconut milk Ka-ti Rice (boiled, steamed) Khao-suay
Coriander Phak-chee Rice (sticky) Khao-niao
Crab Pu Pepper Phrik-thai
Cucumber Tang-gwar Pork Moo, Nuea-moo
Curry paste Krueang-gaeng Salt Gluea
Egg Khai Sugar Nam-tarn
Fingerroot Kra-chai Salad Salad, Yum
Fish Pla Scallion Ton-hom
Fish sauce Nam-pla Shallot Hua-hom
Flour Pang Shrimp, Prawn Goong
Food Ar-harn Shrimp paste Ka-pi
Galangal Kha Soybean oil Nam-man-tua-lueang
Garlic Gra-tiam Sweet basil Ho-ra-pha
Ginger Khing Sweet pepper Phrik-wan
Holy basil Kra-prao Turmeric Kha-min
Jasmine rice Khao hom-ma-li Vegetable Phak
Kiffir lime Ma-grood Vinegar Nam-som
Lemon basil Maeng-lak Water Nam
Lemongrass Ta-krai Wax pepper Phrik-yuak

Don’t be surprised if the list is simple. The most distinctive difference between Thai and western cookery is that Thais seem to prefer rice. We usually eat rice or “Khao” with a variety of dishes which we called “Gab-khao”, preferably balancing the spicy dish with the subtle ones. You don’t have to remember all of this vocabulary, but knowing some of them will make your eating and cooking experience more enjoyable and knowledgable as well as enrich your conversation over the dinner table.

And if you want to know what you can cook using the above ingredients, here are some examples:

Khao khai-jiao: The most simple and all-time delicious, “Khai-jiao” or Thai-styled omelet is usually served with steamed rice. It’s easy to cook and saves money in your pocket. You don’t need any- thing more than “Khao-suay” (steamed rice – jasmine rice is the best), “Khai” (egg), “Nam-man tua- lueang” (soybean oil), “Nam-pla” (fish sauce) and probably a few drops of “Nam-ma-nao” (lime juice) for a perfectly fluffy egg. To make it more nutritious, you can add some pork or chicken mince and veggies such as tomatoes, onions, carrots, sweet basil, etc. “Khao khai-jiao” is best when served with Sriracha chili sauce.

Khao-phad: A bit more complicated but still in budget, this fried-rice menu needs simple ingredi- ents including “Khao-suay”, “Khai”, any kinds of meat, “Gra-tiam” (garlic) and “Nam-pla”. The way to cook it is pretty easy. You toss some crushed garlic and any kinds of meat that you like in the heated soybean oil and cook them for about a minute, then add one or two eggs followed by a bowl of steamed rice and flip it over several times using the flipper. When all ingredients are well mixed, dash Nam-pla onto it and flip it all over again. Wait until you get the well-toasted smell, that’s when the food is ready. Khao-phad is usually served with sliced “Tang-gwar” (cucumber), a slice of “Ma-nao” (lime) and a few bites of “Ton-hom” (scallion).

Khao nam-phrik pla-too: This traditional Thai dish belongs to the central region. According to Wikipedia, “Nam-phrik” refers to viscous, spicy, chili-based sauces which usually contain fresh or dry “Phrik” (chilies),“Hua-hom” (shallot), “Gra-tiam”, “Nam-ma-nao” and often some kind of fish or “Ka-pi”.“Pla-too” is the mackerel which is usually steamed or deep-fried in soybean oil. Thais have various kinds of “Nam-phrik” and usually eat it with mixed vegetables, some of which include“Nam- phrik ka-pi”, “Nam-phrik noom”, “Num-phrik ong”, “Nam-phrik na-rok”, “Nam-phrik pla-yang”, “Nam- phrik ta-daeng” and much more.

Khao kra-prao gai: “Kra-prao” is holy basil and cannot be replaced by something else. So, don’t let anyone fool you that cabbage and Sriracha sauce can give the similar effect. This is one of our all time favorites. Like many others, when I’m hungry and can’t think of anything else, the first thing that comes to my mind is “Khao Kra-prao Gai”. This menu will be better when eating with “Khai- dao” (sunny side-up egg). The ingredients are often nothing more than “Bai kra-prao” (holy basil leaves), some meat, “Phrik”, “Gra-tiam”, “Nam-pla”, “Nam-man tua-lueang” and oh! don’t forget “Nam-man hoy” or oyster sauce. This seasoning is probably important as much as “Bai Kra-prao”. When cooking, add some sugar to balance the taste.

Tom-yum gung: Along came the world-famous “Tom-yum Gung”! (a round of applause, please). This dish can come in thick or light version. The thick is creamy and full-flavored with the mix of milk and roasted chili paste while the light is clearer and better for health. We call the thick one “Tom-yum gung nam-khon” and the light one “Tom-yum gung nam-sai”. Both versions teem with exotic Thai herbs including“Kha” (galangal), “Ta-krai” (lemongrass), “Bai-ma-grood” (kaffir lime leaves), as well as “Phrik”, “Nam-pla” and “Nam-ma-nao”.

Som-tum: “Som-tum” or green papaya salad is Laotian food brought to Bangkok by the northeast- ern people and has become a favorite dish for both foreigners and Thais. Som-tum is made of “Ma-la-gor dib” or green papaya. To cook it, you need these special kitchen tools called “Khrok” (mortar) and “Sak” (pestle). First of all, you put “Gra-tiam” and “Phrik” in the mortar and pound them with the pestle. Once they are well crushed, you put shredded green papaya, rinsed- off “Goong-haeng” (dried shrimp), “Tua-li-song Khua” (roasted peanuts), “Tua-fak-yao” (yardlong beans), “Ma-nao” (limes), and “Ma-khuea-ted” (tomatoes) into the Khrok and pound them again. Then, season it with palm sugar, lime juice, fish sauce and maybe more chili for more spicy taste.

These are some simple dishes that you can cook by yourself or order from the food stalls and shop-house restaurants around Bangkok. Before I turn the whole chapter into Thai food recipe, let’s learn some grammar for ordering food and making a request at the dinner table.

1. Making Request

Thais use the verbs “Khor” and “Chuay” like English speakers use “May/Can” and “Could” to make a request and ask for permission. Although “Can” and “May” are often used interchangeably in day to day English and have a slight difference in term of officialness, when it comes to making request in Thai, “Khor” can be used for both words. The level of politeness in Thai language is normally shown through the use of particles like “Noi” and “Krub / Ka”.

“Khor” can be followed by a noun or a verb and to construct a sentence, the subject is normally omitted. To get clearer picture, please see the following examples:

Khor + N. = May/Can I have… ?

English: May/Can I have one khao-khai-jiao please?

Thai: Khor + khao-khai-jiao(nueng jan) krub

English: May/Can I have two glasses of water please?

Thai: Khor+ nam-plao(song gaeo) krub

You can also replace the word “Khor” with “Ao”. It has the same meaning only that the first word seems to be more polite.

English: May/Can I have one khao kra-prao gai khai-dao please?

Thai: Ao+ khao kra-prao gai khai-dao(nueng jan) ka

Khor + V. (obj.) + Noi + Dai-mai = Can I do something…?

English: Can I see the answer?

Thai: Khor+ du (Kam-top) + noi + dai-maikrab

English: Can I get inside?

Thai: Khor+ Khao-pai+ noi+ dai-maikrab

The above is the examples of using “Khor” for ordering food and asking permission. What about asking someone to help you at the dinner table?

Chuay + V. (obj.) + Noi + Dai-mai = Could you please… ?

English: Could you please pass me some salt?

Thai: Chuay+ song (gluer)+ noi+ dai-maikrab

English: Could you please give me the salad?

Thai: Chuay+ song (salad)+ noi+ dai-maika

“Chuay… noi” is used when you request someone to do something for you. Similar to “Khor” in meaning two, between “Chuay” and “Noi” would be a verb or the help that you need to ask for. For example, “Chuay lob noi” means “excuse me” in the sense of asking someone to move out of your way. To make the sentence more subtle and polite, you can add the words “Krub/ Ka” and “Dai- mai” at the end of the sentence. “Dai-mai” is used to make interrogative form.

2. Adverb of Degree

To order food in a Thai restaurant, you also need to learn about adverb of degree, especially Thai food is famous for being spicy. Being able to tell the level of the spiciness is, therefore, necessary for those who are not familiar with the spicy flavor. Let’s explore the table below for Thai adverb of degree:

English Thai
Extremely spicy Phed sud-sud, Phed mak-mak
Very spicy Phed mak, Phed-phed
Moderately spicy Phed pan-klang
Slightly spicy Phed nid-noi, Phed noi
Not spicy Mai phed

“Mak” and “Mak-mak” means very and extremely, sometimes can be replaced by “Sud-sud”. Mod- erately is “Pan-klang” while slightly is “Noi” or “Nid-noi”. You can replace the adjective “Phed” with other words using the same pattern, for example, “Whan sud-sud” means very sweet, “Priao pan- klang” means moderately sour and “Khom Nid-noi” means a bit bitter, etc. To explain precisely what kind of food you need and how you need it, you may also need to know adjectives regarding food and flavor.

3. Adjectives to Describe the Taste of Food

English Thai English Thai
Bland, Plain Jued Overripe Ngorm
Bitter Khom Raw Dib
Cool Yen Ripe Suk
Creamy Khon Roasted Yang, Ping
Crispy, Crunchy Grob Salty Them
Dry Haeng Soggy, Mushy Leh
Fresh Sod Spicy Phed
Greasy Mun Sour, Acidic Priao
Hot Ron Sweet Whan
Juicy Chum Warm Oon
Light, Mild Orn, Sai Watery Leo
Oily Mun Well-done Suk

In Thai language, you can use word repetition to add emphasis or intensify the meaning of some- thing. For example, “Ao som-tom priao priao” means you want your som-tum to be super sour while “Khor moo-ping suk suk” means you want your grilled pork to be well done.

Asking if all these knowledge are enough for you to dinner with a Thai. Well, maybe and maybe not. If you’re about to have dinner with Thai friends or colleagues, surely they don’t care much about your dining mistakes. But if you’re invited to an official dining (imagine to see your girlfriend’s parents), I’m pretty certain that you will want to avoid all kinds of food faux pas.

Thai Dining Etiquette

Unlike the western culture in which each person has the portion of their own, eating Thai food is a communal affair in which one meal can be shared among group members. Thais use spoon and fork when eating rice, chopsticks when eating noodles and knife when eating western food. No matter what kind of food is served, below is the etiquette that can be applied to all.

  1. Thais eat rice with spoon and fork called “Chon” and “Som”. The way to use them is holding Chon in your right hand and Som in your left hand. You use Chon or spoon to put the food into your mouth and Som to get the food into the spoon.
  2. You have to use“Chon-klang” to transfer the food from each shared dish to your own plate. The shared dishes or “Gab-khao” are usually put in the middle of the table so everyone can reach to them. Helping others by moving the dish for them is considered a good manner.
  3. Thais like to balance the food in one meal. So, a meal can be composed of a thick or light soup, a fried dish, a broiled dish, a spicy dish and so on. Everyone is allowed to taste every dish. When it is your turn, take only small amount of each dish. And if you like it, you can have some more
  4. The most senior in the group usually orders food for everyone but they will ask others for com- ments as well. If you’re asked, you can tell them what you like to have but don’t choose too ex- pensive menu.
  5. Thais use chopsticks when eating noodle and Chinese If it is soup-noodle, we also use Chon to scoop the soup.
  6. Soup in the big bowl is usually transferred to smaller bowls and distributed to everyone in the group. If not, use “Chon Klang” to transfer the soup to your own
  7. You should wait until everyone is ready at the table, so you can start eating.
  8. Loud chewing and burp are considered impolite.
  9. If you’re invited, usually the host will pay the bill. It not, the most senior or the most wealthiest will be expected to pay the bill. But if you’re eating out with friends and colleagues, going Dutch or American is also acceptable. You don’t have to mention the money thing, just see what they do and go with the flow.
  10. When eating out, tipping is not the rule but expensive restaurants normally charge 7% VAT and 10% service fee. Details will be shown in the bill. Some restaurants may charge only 7% In that case, you may consider giving tips. The appropriate amount is 10%.

Now, if you’re ready, “Tan hai a-roy na ka” – meaning bon appétit!

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