When I first moved to Bangkok, about 100 years ago, I didn’t know so much about Thai customs. Not even Thai eating customs. I didn’t know what was considered good manners, or even nice. This caused some problems for me when I started dating.
In general, Thai manners aren’t that different from Western manners. Slurping the broth of anything to show your appreciation is still considered gross, and burping is definitively accepted as The Worst Thing You Can Do, aside from spitting your lungs out all over the restaurant floor. So there’s that. Shouting and chewing with your mouth open are also not done. Don’t even get me started with kicking off your shoes and sitting Indian-style.
But there are little nuances that you grow to learn after being told by someone else that they are the Polite Thing To Do. Because food is always served family-style, it’s nice to put a bit of each dish on your honey’s plate first before serving yourself, or, if you are the lowest-ranking person at the table (this is always me), putting a bit of each dish on everybody else’s plate before yours. Never sticking your germy, spit-encrusted spoon into the common soup or curry bowl is also a nice thing to do; you are supposed to use the chon glang (central spoon) to put a little of the broth or curry into your spoon, and delicately sip from that. Sure, it’s largely unsatisfying and will never get you full, but that is not the point. The point is not to get your disgusting cooties all up into everyone else’s mouth. And of course, there is never YOUR soup, or YOUR curry. Hugging that pot of ambrosia to your chest like it’s the last Snickers bar on Earth only makes you look like a selfish ignoramus, and will gross all the Thai people at the table out.
You all know this stuff, so I’m basically preaching to the Thai food choir. But there are gray areas. I am reminded of this every time I see a platter of Tandoori chicken. One night I was at Rang Mahal (on the top floor of the Rembrandt hotel) with my boyfriend at the time, who is not my husband now. What did he do? Take away the chicken breast I had put onto my plate, and attempt to replace it with a chicken leg.
Now, you know if there is something on my plate that someone is trying to mess with, that I WILL SHUT THAT SHIT DOWN. NO ONE TOUCHES MY PLATE — especially after I’ve had a few bites, gotten my digestive juices flowing, and am just starting to hit my stride (you know what I’m talking about, Eaters). I speared the retreating chicken breast with my fork, resulting in a great big THUNK on the table. He didn’t like that so much. He was only trying to replace my manky old slab of boring, tasteless white meat with a hunk of delicious dark meat on the bone, after all! Needless to say (obviously), that relationship didn’t last. I am now with a man who knows better than to MESS WITH MY DINNER PLATE.
I’m miles away from where I’m supposed to be, but stay with me for a second here: Because I’ve learned about Thai eating habits since that night at Rang Mahal, I feel like I can criticize what I see happening now — telling people to get off my culinary lawn, so to speak. And, it may just be me, but I see an increasing number of instant noodle packets at noodle vendor stalls, instead of the dried rice noodles that have been de riguer for forever. More and more, I think “Mama” has become a legitimate noodle option alongside sen lek (thin rice noodles) and sen yai (thick rice noodles), instead of a junky afternoon snack that you hide in the farthest reaches of your pantry.
This troubles me because I don’t think that stuff is that particularly good for you. Sure, you say, I blab about street food all the time, with deep-fried this and coconut milk-slathered that. But, in my case anyway, it’s food that I think has been lovingly and thoughtfully made, even if it is food for convenience. It should be a convenience for us, but a pain in the ass for them. And more and more, we’re accepting conveniences for everyone — as loaded with sugar and MSG, and deep-fried and industrial as it is.
I understand the jones for some processed, double-fried wheat noodles flavored with the chemical tang of a spicy Cheetoh once in a while. So if you must have it, have it right. There are stalls that stir-fry it with vegetables and, occasionally, sausages; others who blanch the noodles in a broth and serve it with seafood, veggies and a delicious yum-style salad dressing. I have even requested it made into a som tum, which … didn’t work, but I suspect that had to do with the tom yum (spicy lemongrass) seasoning, and less with the noodles themselves.
Or how about in a bona fide pork bone broth, blanketed under a layer of genuine spicy lemongrass seasonings, crushed peanuts, and fresh basil leaves? Head over to Khlong Toei market, turn the corner from Rama IV road onto Ratchadaphisek and plunge into the heart of it underneath the awning, past the Chinese “general” stores and rice shops, past the wet seafood section, out into the sunlight, and past the pork and chicken and vegetable stands that repeat every few intervals like some sort of code, until you see a small road leading off to your right. Take this road for about 50 m until you see a chicken rice stall on your right; behind that lurks the smiling noodle vendor, who specializes in pork tom yum and gow low (soup without noodles) dotted with winter melon, all based on a flavorful, fragrant pork bone-based broth.
Or just scrabble around in your pantry and have a junky afternoon snack.