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For my ethnography project, I decided to study the aspects of Thai food culture. The main aim of this ethnography project is to compare Thai food culture and the quality of food in Thailand and that of other Western countries. What is the food culture and how does the importance of food in Thai culture differ from cultures from other cultural communities? Although the focus is on Thai food culture, historical background and the general culture of Thailand plays a major role in this study. Thailand republic, also known as the Kingdom of Thailand is a country located southeast of Asia with a coastline on the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea. Thailand is famous for its cuisine, magnificent beaches, and tropical climate. The largest ethnic community in Thailand is the Siam and for the purpose of this paper, I will refer to the Thai people as Siamese.
Ever since I learned about Thailand, my dream has always been to travel there and learn more for myself. The dream came true when an international NGO I was working for as a volunteer offered me a chance to visit the country. My interest in Thai culture narrowed down to food and that is why I decided to do this particular research. For this report, I observed the Siamese for a span of three months, attended some of their festivals, and interviewed a few of them. Took notes on how they prepared and served their food. I further did vast research about other features I could not learn through the methods stated above.
Although I knew a lot about Thailand I never anticipated much difference on the ground, I was mesmerized to realize that I did not know much about the Siamese. The little knowledge I had helped me to interact well. It is expected that a visitor might face a number of problems in a foreign country, surprisingly, I interacted with the Siamese, very well in a manner that left me feeling like a member of their community.
I commenced my research immediately upon arrival in Thailand. On the first day, we went for dinner at a nearby restaurant. Upon entering the restaurant, we chose to sit at a table that looked unoccupied but were joined by the other two Siamese diners, before we placed our orders. On the menu, there was nothing as a starter, but that was not much of our worry by then considering the hunger we felt. The Siamese placed an order and food was brought in four dishes according to the number of people at the table. When we finished eating, the waiter brought us fresh fruit salad which comprised of fresh pineapples and mangoes. I was surprised that we had to eat the dishes together and not individually. Funny enough, we had to eat the dishes one after the other and not by mixing them like we in western culture always do.
The meal consisted of a variety of meat dishes, vegetables, noodles and soup dishes plus seasoning. The waiter brought the seasoning in all the four tastes; spicy, sour, sweet and salty. I used only the spicy seasoning and was surprised to see the Siamese eat all the four seasoning tastes. The meal was also served with a dessert that comprised of fresh pineapple fruit and rice cake that looked very colorful. I enjoyed the meal like no other and this increased my interest in Thai culture. After the meal, we made an acquaintance with the two Siamese and agreed to meet again. Since I was exhausted after the journey and I had to report to the office early, I decided to rest in my rented apartment.
Since my stay in Thailand was long and I had a job to do, I decided to make my observation step by step and that explains the reason it took me three months to write this report. I could use the evenings, weekends, office field days and my days off to continue with my research. During these days, I attended parties, visited several restaurants and tried to make as many friends as possible since informal conversations with friends are the best way to acquire finer details than formal interviews.
Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are the main meals, but I could get a snack or two cheaply in between the meals. I could find a variety of snacks nearly everywhere whenever I needed. The common snacks I liked included chicken satay, beef satay, salads, and sweets.
During one of the weekends, I was invited to post-wedding reception party by a Siamese whom we had become the best friends with. The party was an open-air kind held on one of the public beaches along the Shore of Andaman Sea. I had never seen such beautiful scenery in my life. In this party food was the center of the celebration, in fact, it looked like it was a cause for celebration. The amount of food was enough for thrice the invited guests and it came in a wide variety ranging from meat, fish, rice, vegetables to fruits of different kinds. They served me with a beautifully decorated plate; the food looked more beautiful than delicious. It amazed me how the Siamese presented the food in a formal manner. Platters used for serving were decorated with all varieties of fruits and vegetables, which are carved into flowers and other patterns that represent beauty. I inquired from my friend how such a piece of art could be possible. It took me time to convince him because according to him, he could not believe that I was serious that I had never seen such a ‘common’ thing. I came to learn that Thai chefs use only a simple knife to carve and ice water to prevent discoloration while cutting the vegetables. On all these occasions, I kept records of my observations.
On one occasion, a Siamese colleague in the office invited me for a social gathering at their home. As scheduled, he picked me up at my apartment at seven o'clock and drove me to their home and as was expected the food was the center of an occasion. Its food was in plenty and a variety, but it was no longer a surprise to me since I already was acknowledged to such food culture. After the usual pleasantries, we went directly to the dining room. After being served, I was provided with two cutleries a fork and a big spoon. I observed and realized that they held the big spoon in the right hand and used it in place of a knife. I ate the food served with a mound of rice on the side and the soup in a bowl. The food was eaten by a sampling of the dishes provided at a time and not by mixing it together on one plate.
During all the occasions I attended in Thailand, I never saw the hosts collecting and throwing away the leftover food. The leftovers are collected and kept and when I interviewed a Siamese, he told me that it is a superstition that if they threw food away, a calamity might befall them. The leftovers were either kept to be eaten later or the host would decide to donate to those who might have had nothing to eat.
At the end of the observation period, I had gathered much evidence and information about the people of Thailand and their food culture. The little information I had about the Siamese had widened broadly at the end of the three months I was observing. I learned that the Thai food culture is much different from any other culture I knew and that the Siamese love their food and, thus, attach much importance to it.
In Thailand, for any social occasion, whether it is a wedding, a party, or any other form of gathering, food plays a central part. Food is a social occasion in itself. This value is majorly contributed by the fact that the Siamese are friendly and social people and because of the manner in which food is ordered and eaten. I learned this from the restaurant I visited on my first day, when the two Siamese joined us at the table, ordered our meals and kept on talking to us as if we were old friends.
Menus in Thailand do not have a starter, and there is no dish served to only one person. People sit together at a table order the same number of dishes equal to their number. All the food is shared and eaten together; because of this, it is better to have many diners at a table rather than one or two. Siamese believes that eating alone is bad luck. They would prefer to eat with strangers than to eat alone. This came to my knowledge through an interview I conducted with one of the two Siamese who had joined us for dinner in the restaurant. This aspect is unlike the western culture whereby in a regular restaurant, a meal consists of a starter followed by the main course and a dessert and each person orders his or her food and eats either himself or with other people but the food is never shared. Furthermore, there is no superstition attached to food in western culture.
At the end of every meal, there is no such thing as throwing away leftovers. The Siamese believe that there is a goddess (god of rice), who watches over the people and ensures that everyone has enough food to eat. According to them, throwing away food will anger the goddess and that may cause bad luck or a calamity like a famine might befall the people. All the leftovers are collected and eaten later or donated to the poor. This is a positive belief, in that it minimizes wasting of foodstuffs and benefits the less fortunate in the society. This aspect of culture reflects the friendly and social nature of the Thai people.
A typical meal in Thailand must include four main seasonings: spicy, salty, sweet and sour. A Siamese will not consider the food as satisfying unless all the four tastes are combined in a meal. I saw this when the Siamese we were dining at the same table used all the seasonings while I used only the spicy seasoning. When they go out to eat, a group of Siamese diners would sit around a table and order their meal. The order would include a variety of fish and or meat dishes, noodle dishes, vegetable dishes and soup. The diners would then share and enjoy the dishes. After the main meal, the waiter brings them a desert. The desert may consist of a variety of fresh fruits and maybe an exotic, colorful rice cake. Unlike other cultures, Thai meals are not served with drinks such as wine or carbonated water. The only fluid in Thai meal is soup. Since I didn't like cooking for myself and the fact that I loved Siamese food, I always dined in restaurants and on most occasions usually I went out with a group of friends.
The Siamese combines a sense of beauty with their food. Presentation of food in a formal manner is an imperative and an interesting aspect of the Siamese culture. The food presentation of Thai people is among the most exquisite in the world. This aspect was developed primarily from the palace to please the king, but later spread to the whole kingdom and became part of their culture. This development dates back to when Thailand was still known as the Kingdom of Siam. The serving platters are decorated with all varieties of fruits, vegetables, and flowers. Thai chili flower is common in these. Stir-fries served to include vegetables that are carved elegantly and served within the dish itself. The carved vegetables are part of the meal and not only for decoration. This piece of art is the work of experienced Thai chefs. To achieve this, the chefs use a simple paring knife and ice water. The knife is for carving while the ice water is used to prevent the vegetables from discoloration and to maintain the original color while being cut; beauty is all about colors. The formal presentation is usually employed during special occasions and mostly for honors of the day and the special guests invited due to the cost factor, although, the families who afford it can do it as regularly as they want. I saw this presentation the first time when I accompanied a friend to a post-wedding party, which, was held on the coast of the Andaman Sea. Although they served me with the decorated plates, I never saw the whole process of carving. A friend who he had invited me to the party took me systematically through the whole process; in fact, he had to show me practically one day at a dinner at his house. I tried to do the carving one day in my apartment, but I made a mess out of everything. These carvings of vegetables and fruits are popularly known as the Thai centerpiece.
Apart from meals, Thai people are renowned lovers of snacks. It is easy for one to pick a quick, but a delicious snack for a few pennies. Snacks are readily available nearly everywhere in Thailand, including a marketplace, roadsides, and even commuter stations. The most common snacks will include beef or chicken satay, spring rolls, raw vegetables with spicy dips, salads, soup, and even sweets. At times, I could substitute a meal for a snack. I could also see mobile snack vendors once in a while. The availability of varieties of snacks everywhere is enough evidence that the Siamese love snacks.
Chinese immigrants brought chopsticks to Thailand a long time ago, but up to date, most Siamese prefers to use the western cutlery. Although they use the western cutlery they do so in their own unique way. Siamese cutlery consists of a fork and a large spoon. The spoon is used in place of the knife in the western culture. Like the western culture, the fork is held in the left hand and a big spoon in the right hand. Since I was accustomed to the western cutlery, I took a short time to learn to substitute the knife with the Thai big spoon.
When dining, Siamese does not combine different foods on one plate, but sample one dish at a time, eaten with a mound of fragrant Thai rice on the side. Nearly all the meals in Thailand are served with a mound of rice since it is their staple food and it is produced commercially. Siamese use bowls mainly for soup and not plates as is the case in Chinese culture.
Food tastes in Thailand have a long historical background. This historical background dates back to the thirteenth century when the Thai people established what might be considered as the heart of the Siamese cuisine as we know it today. These include different types of seafood and meat combined with local vegetables, different spices such as pepper, garlic, and herbs, all served with rice. The Chinese later brought noodles to Thailand and introduced the steel wok, which is the most important Thai cooking tool now.
The present Siamese cuisine has also been influenced heavily by spices and flavors from neighboring India. This influence is evident by the presence of famous Indian green, yellow and red curries, however, Indian and Thai curries practically look alike. Despite the fact that Siamese curry has incorporated many Indian spices in its pastes, it has managed to maintain its own original flavor with the addition of Thai local spices and ingredients, which include lemongrass, Thai holy basil, and galangal also known as Thai ginger. Many other influences of Siamese cuisine may be found in neighboring countries such as Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Burma. This plenty of influences combined to create the complex present-day tastes of Thai cooking, which is one of the popular and fastest-growing cuisines in the world today.
Thus, through observation, experiences, interviews, and conversations, my general understanding of Thai food culture is that the Thai people are lovers of food and hence, place major importance on it. This is evident in how Siamese value cooking, presentation, and eating of food.
Thai food culture differs in many aspects from other cultures in the world, it is also one of the oldest, richest and fastest-growing cultures.