Education About Asia

The Politics of the Thai Table: Food, Manners, Values

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Many readers have probably wandered into a Thai restaurant somewhere in North America or Western Europe, ordered a plate of pad thai, and scooped it up with a fork held in the right hand. (note 1) They have probably viewed the offerings on the menu somewhat nervously and then perhaps tried a few other dishes—as long as they were not too spicy. Mouths on fire, they have ended the meal with a comforting Thai dessert, often mango and sticky rice or a sweet pudding, and washed the whole thing down with glasses of Singha beer and water. They want authenticity—but not too much authenticity.

Savvy, self-aware travelers who have visited Thailand might notice a few telling differences in Western Thai restaurants in comparison to what they saw in the country itself. They are likely to notice that they are paying perhaps eight times the price they would have paid in Thailand for their pad thai—which is
considered street food there. The dish was “reinvented” as a unifying device by a twentieth-century dictator who based it on a Chinese dish (the name means “Thai stir-fry”). A relatively bland and uncomplicated dish, it also lent itself to the international promotion of Thai cuisine. They might also notice that some of the ingredients added by hand in Thailand, such as raw bean sprouts, scallions, and crushed peanuts, are already mixed into the dishes in front of them. They might also remember that in Thailand, they never saw anyone forking up that noodle dish—certainly not with a left hand—but instead
saw Thais using a fork to push a little at a time into a spoon held in the right hand. If they ate their pad thai at a roadside stall table or noodle shop, they might have seen some people using chopsticks—but never, as opposed to the scene in their local American Thai take-out, asking for green curry and only
rarely ordering chicken with basil and hot peppers. Chopsticks are for noodle stalls and “Chinese” restaurants.