Travel around Asia and you’ll be picking up your food with two long thin sticks. It’s the hardest thing at first, but you learn quickly. Otherwise, you ain’t eatin’!
Then you make it to Thailand, confident in your ability to navigate any food combination they can throw at you… and you see a fork and spoon next to your plate. What gives?
So you might think, why doesn’t Thailand use chopsticks?
The answer is that chopsticks are used but rarely. They are reserved for noodle dishes that originated from China. Even then, you still have the option of using a fork and spoon.
Thai dishes are served with a fork and spoon. Chopsticks never took off in the same way they did in Chinese-influenced Vietnam. Food in Thailand was eaten by hand by hand until relatively recently.
When Thailand modernized, they were more in contact with European powers than the Chinese and opted for the Western utensils of fork and spoon which have remained popular ever since.
Why Does Thailand Use The Fork And Spoon?
Thai food was traditionally eaten with bare hands, similar to ways of eating in India. This might sound a little unhygienic or off-putting. Let me try to explain.
When I’m in the UK, I will eat chips (fries) with my hands. You could use a fork, but using your hand quicker and makes it easier to dip into sauces and stuff. This method of getting food into your mouth goes for a lot more food than you might think. Crisps, pizza, chocolate, burritos, sandwiches… Using your hands to eat is something we do all the time.
Now let’s take a look at some Thai food. This is gai yaang, an awesome dish that translates literally as ‘grilled chicken’. It’s served with sauces, my favourite being the tangy and sweet naam jim.
[pic coming soon :)]
The idea is you pick it up with your hands and dip it in the sauce, much like you might do with chicken strips from KFC. This is just one example of the many Thai foods which are easy to eat by hand.
Aha! But what about rice? I hear you cry… surely that is impossible to eat with hands!
Well, traditional Thai meals are served with sticky rice. Using chopsticks to eat sticky rice is an onerous ordeal, and using knives or forks not much better. The answer? Pick it up with your hands!
Here’s a look at a piece of sticky rice being held up. This photo should be enough to convince anyone that it deserves its name, it’s practically glued together.
[pic coming soon :)]
Another popular dish from the Isaan cuisine is Som Tam, a salad made with papaya fruit, peanuts, sprouted beans and sometimes egg or shrimp. A real delicacy and a lot nicer than the sum of its ingredients might seem. It’s also a dish that would be nigh on impossible to eat with just a knife and fork. So the spoon comes happily into play.
[pic coming soon :)]
At some point during the modernisation of Thailand (or Siam as it was called), the country made the switch from eating with hands to eating with cutlery. The Thai people replaced the hand with the spoon which is the primary piece of cutlery that is used when eating Thai food.
How To Use The Fork And Spoon (Correct Etiquette)
At Western dinner tables, the knife goes in the right hand and the fork in the left hand. The dominant hand holds the knife which is used for the harder task of cutting up food whereas the left-hand holds the fork which is used for gripping food and putting it into your mouth.
That’s the “proper” way anyway. In practice, many people, including myself, prefer to have the fork in the right hand because it’s the one you use the most.
In Thailand, the spoon goes in the right hand and the fork goes in the left hand. You can think of the spoon as a scooping tool which you put your food on to then be placed in your mouth. The fork is not used for stabbing but to help you place stuff onto the spoon. You could equally use two spoons to achieve the same effect. I imagine it looks a little too ridiculous to have caught on over the fork+spoon combo.
If you want to rip something apart, like a juicy piece of grilled pork neck that’s a little too big, then you can use the fork to hold your food while the spoon acts as a stand-in knife. The thing is, as I’ll explain further in the next section, your food will arrive at the table in bite-size form after all the chopping and slicing has been done in the kitchen.
In addition, there are many dishes where it is perfectly acceptable to simply use your hands to eat. Gai yaang (grilled chicken) is a perfect example. Here’s a photo of some delicious 40฿ gai yaang from my local Isaan place below. You’re going to struggle to eat this with any amount of cutlery so it’s fine to dive in and get your hands grubby.
[pic coming soon :)]
Why Don’t They Use A Knife Instead Of A Spoon?
You will never see a knife at the table of a Thai restaurant or at any Thai family meal. For that matter, you won’t even be able to ask for one in most places. (Western-style restaurants excepted.)
In Thailand, the knife is a tool for the kitchen. The chef will use a knife to cut up meat and vegetables so that every dish is ready to be eaten in bite-sized pieces. Take a look at this next dish. Khaaw muu yaang which translates as ‘grilled pork neck’ and is a personal favorite.
Can you see how the pork is served already sliced? You can pick up a piece with your hands or with a spoon and put it in your mouth. No need for a knife.
It is true that some foods need to be ripped apart. This is done with spoon and fork. So if you take one of those pieces of pork in the photo above and you decide you only want half, you’d just hold it down with your fork and use your spoon to rip it in two.
The spoon is practically a must for certain dishes. Here’s a plate of pad see ew, a gorgeous noodle dish served in soy sauce with carrots and kale. Good luck attempting to get this in your mouth with knife and fork.
[pic coming soon :)]
It’s like how you eat pasta (which is basically the same as noodles anyway). A fork and spoon are going to be more convenient than chopping up your stringy tagliatelle with a knife.
Knives are also seen as more of a weapon than a utensil. Having one at the dinner table would be inappropriate in a similar way to placing a rifle next to the entrees. This also minimises the chances of a heated argument turning violent!
In fact, this attitude seems to exist in much of Asia. I remember being in China and wanting to eat a bao zi which is like a large breaded dumpling. I picked up a plastic knife to cut it in half only to see my Chinese co-teacher jump in shock and snatch the knife off me. Apparently, I was about to commit a major faux pas!
What Dishes In Thailand Use Chopsticks?
The Thai dishes that use chopsticks are wet noodles dishes. By ‘wet’ here I am referring to noodle dishes that come in large bowls where the noodles are submerged in a soup of spicy vegetables and other delicacies.
Although these dishes came from China, they are very much a part of Thai cuisine these days. Walk down any busy street and you’ll be sure to see a couple of street-side noodle vendors… It’s why Thais are all proficient with chopsticks despite them not being the ‘go-to’ cutlery choice for the country.
On the other hand, ‘dry’ noodles are eaten with fork and spoon. I mentioned pad see ew before and pad thai is another you may have heard of.
You’ll also see chopsticks at Chinese, Korean or Japanese restaurants. This might seem like a minor point but it’s not. These restaurants are extremely popular in Thailand and particularly in Bangkok. They are seen as excellent, if expensive, places to spend an evening.
These cuisines, especially Japanese and Korean, are the most popular foreign foods. Much like French or Italian are among the most popular restaurants in the UK. Another contributing factor for Thai people being handy with a pair of chopsticks.
Do I Need To Learn How To Use Chopsticks To Visit Thailand?
The answer to this is definitely no. If you are travelling around Thailand and staying in tourist hotspots, you will find an abundance of Western food served with knife and fork and Thai food served with fork and spoon.
Venture a little further from the beaten path and you will still find food everywhere that is made to be eaten with fork and spoon or even just with your hands!. And don’t worry about learning to use a fork and spoon. If you come from a Western background you will pick it up in an instant.
In fact, I would say that most visitors to Thailand barely encounter chopsticks at all. You will only run into them if you make an effort to find Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean or Japanese restaurants or if you sit down at a guay dtiao (noodles) stand.
Is it worth learning it anyway? I’d say so. It’s a fun, if tricky, skill and a good excuse to go eat at some nice restaurants for practice. Being able to use chopsticks will allow you to sample the full spectrum of Thai cuisine.
I’ll leave you with this, the Thai script for guay dtiao (ก๋วยเตี๋ยว). If you can decipher this writing on a street food cart then you know you’re in for a big bowl of noodles filled with all kinds of goodies. And you’ve got to eat them with chopsticks!
[pic coming soon :)]
What Other Countries Use The Fork And Spoon Combination?
If chopsticks are the preserve of the oriental nations like China, Japan and Korea, and the knife and fork is the bastion of the Western world, where else uses this seemingly strange duo of fork and spoon?
The usage is restricted to certain South-East Asian countries, all with borders and histories intertwined with Thailand. You’ll find dishes primarily served with a fork and spoon in Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos.
I can’t find any information supporting this but I believe the Thai influence probably had something to do with that, given it was the first SEA country to modernise/Westernise and introduce Western eating utensils.
Looking further afield, the fork and spoon can be found in countries like Vietnam and Malaysia where it competes with the chopsticks for the greatest presence at the dinner table. Those two countries have historically had more Chinese influence which would explain the prevalence of the chopsticks in dishes there.
As far as I know, the pairing of fork and spoon seems to have had little traction outside of this small yet populous corner of Asia.
I must say though, given a few years of living in Thailand I greatly prefer the fork and spoon for any dish I eat that doesn’t require cutting. Sure, you’re not going to be using it for a hearty steak and chips, but for anything else, I’m a convert. Maybe the rest of the world will see as I do someday…