Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Thailand and the fork

I normally think of the fork as a Western implement, but after complaining about the lack of chopsticks at a Thai resto I visited a few days back, commenters have been writing in to say that both Thai restaurants and Thais in Thailand use forks when eating. My brain refuses to accept this, so I pass the question to those two unquestionable authorities, Justin and Nam.

What say you, J&N? Are Thais a fork people? And if they are, how the hell did they get that way? Is Theravada Buddhism somehow to blame?


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7 comments:

Charles said...

I realize that I'm not an unquestionable authority on this, but when we were in Thailand we mainly ate with forks and spoons. Chopsticks were used for rice noodles and things of that nature that would just be too hard to eat with a fork. But pretty much everything else was fork fare.

Why, I have no idea, but I've learned that when in doubt, blame the Japanese.

It's Me... Maven said...

Not sure if my comments will have much merit; however, I am an intense lover of Thai cuisine, and I was instructed of two things:

1. Chopsticks are acceptable only with noodle dishes;

2. Everything else gets eaten with the bare hand, with rice. The rice is very sticky and is mashed slightly between the fingers and food is pinched up and eaten thusly.

Jelly said...

Just last week I said, "I have a stupid question," and then proceeded to ask my Filipino friend if he uses chopsticks back home.
"No!" he replied. "We use a fork and spoon!"
So I guess it wasn't an entirely stupid question.

Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Chopsticks were not indigenous to Thailand. They were first introduced by Chinese merchants about 600 years ago.

For years and years, the Thai people tried to learn how to manipulate the difficult cutlery, but after years of frustration, one Thai rebelled as he was attempting to tear meat from the breast of a spicy, simmered chicken, without success, and in his frustration, he screamed out:

"Fork this!"

The other Thai people within earshot agreed:

"Fork this! Fork this! Fork this! Fork this! Fork this! Fork this! Fork this!"

Soon, the entire Thai nation was chanting "Fork this!" over and over.

So ... they did. No more chopsticks. Just forks.

Jeffery Hodges

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Charles said...

Maven's comment stirred up a memory: especially in northern Thai cuisine (Isan), sticky rice is balled up and eaten by hand with the food. In my brief experience, though, most Thais do not eat most foods with their hands. It's possible that this wasn't always the case and is something of a modern adaptation, but I really wouldn't know. I only know what we experienced while we were there.

It's Me... Maven said...

I always wondered if the chopsticks with noodle dishes was due to the Chinese influence on Thai noodle dishes.

Could eating with bare hands be a regional thing, or acceptable for certain dishes, much like the acceptability and versatility of eating sushi with either chop sticks OR bare hand?

I'd really like to see how this discussion evolves:)

I can personally vouch for south Indians, they eat everything bare handed, replete with slurping sounds.

Justin said...

First of all, I'm sorry this response is late but I wanted to ask around about the history of eating utensils in Thailand, and then when I went home yesterday, my net connection was down.

> Are Thais a fork people?
Thais are primarily a spoon people. The spoon is held in the strong hand and the weak hand holds the fork, which plays only a supporting role by scooping food onto the spoon . In fact, it's used in such a way that it could easily be replaced by another spoon. Of course, that would look even more ridiculous than the current arrangement, which may explain the use of a fork at all. Logically, the next question should be, "why not use knives?" I have interviewed around twenty people since yesterday, and have heard three reasons for this:

A. Historical explanation: The knife is a weapon, so it was banished at the table. The seeming banishment is no joke, I think my house may be the only one in a fifty mile radius that has a full set of both steak and butter knives.

B. Practical explanation #1: Thai food is served in bite-sized pieces and there's no reason to cut it before eating. I kind of have to call bullshit on this one, I think it's true for the most part, however, I often see people biting a large piece of seafood, sausage, or meat in half because it is too large, or sawing it into smaller pieces with their spoon. Also, there are many Thai dishes that are not served in bite-sized pieces (which might be easier eaten with another utensil or combination of utensils), such as whole steamed/deep fried fish, long-stemmed vegetables, and other various foods that need to be divided before eating.

C. Practical explanation #2: It's the easiest combination of utensils/methods to eat with (once you are used to it). This explanation rings true to me. Basically, you will be hard pressed to get people here to do anything that requires extra effort without a serious motivator. I'm not saying that in a negative way, I'm just saying that's the way it is. If you think about it, the only thing than eating with a spoon/fork (again, if you are used to it) is eating with your hands, and that's exactly why many people here in the Northeastern region of Thailand completely forego the use of utensils when eating certain foods such as grilled meat, sticky rice, and even somtam (papaya salad). I, myself, love eating with my fingers (that's one of the main reasons I like eating sushi when in Japan - it's one of the only foods that appeals to all of your senses). But I digress.

It is my opinion that most Thai people, even those who use them every day, cannot use a knife properly (safely), and definitely not at the table. Fork usage isn't that hard so I imagine most can use one (in a primary role) if they ever eat pasta or steak, or at a westernized restaurant that sets the table with knife/fork/no spoon (they do exist, even out here in the sticks). Chopsticks are used in a primary role at noodle (as in, noodles served in soup) joints and in Chinese/Japanese/Korean restaurants. I've met one Thai this week who cannot use chopsticks, and one who prefers not to, even when eating a bowl of noodles (ironically, they both eat wet noodles with a FORK! Heinous! That's just being a bad Asian, IMHO.)

> Is Theravada Buddhism somehow to blame?
At this point, I would say no. Although I'm suspicious about those fucking Templars. Seriously, though, I think this has more to do with the influence of the King a century ago (Thailand's most revered, King Rama V) than it does with religion. But I need to research this more.

>...how the hell did they get that way?
Researching the history of utensil usage in Thai on the Internet has been a bit frustrating. I will dig deeper when I have time. What I'm looking for is evidence supporting any of the theories on the net, and indeed, any of the information I've written above.

Also, I like Dr. Hodges' explanation above more than any other I've seen thus far.