Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Real Thai Dinner

Going to another country makes you evaluate what you do and why you do it.

For example: what it takes in terms of space and furniture to host guests.

And: how you prepare food, and why.  And why you use the eating utensils you do.

Amy and Kimberly have a cute but quite tiny house with two bedrooms, a living area with a small couch and  small table, and a little kitchen.

One evening they invited a bunch of friends--staff from the local university plus one husband--to cook a Thai meal at their house.

[Pause: Amy, feel free to get into my account and edit all the things I wasn't sure about or got all wrong.]

I was also invited, so there were eight people all together.  At our house, that would mean two leaves in our big dining table and all our rather bulky dining chairs plus the two green ones I got from Paul's mom.  Quite a lot of cubic footage in all.

Kimberly wrestled a big rolled-up something out of the corner and proceeded to lay it on the floor.  It was a big woven mat.  The food was placed in the middle, plates were placed around the food, and we all sat around that, with plenty of room.  They could have accommodated a few more this way, in fact.

I thought: Hmmmm.

But first, of course, they made the food.  They arrived with lots of fresh things--broccoli, cute white mushrooms, green onions, and tomatoes, which were washed and chopped and soaked in salt water with great busyness.  Some were briefly cooked, and then the water was tossed out the back door rather than down the drain.  I don't know why.



Just like American tomatoes, except they don't remove the green core thing at the top.
 A number of ingredients were included purely for flavor and not intended to be eaten: lemongrass, which has a woody texture, tiny hot peppers to rival anything in Mexico  and a green leaf that I forget the name of.

I learned the hard way that these are not actually for eating, first crunching through a slice of lemongrass and then biting into a bit of pepper that sent searing flames shooting out of my nose and ears, and tears out of my eyes, while everyone offered their solutions and the nice lady to my left got me ice water and Kimberly said that where she teaches, the children are taught to eat a fresh vegetable if they bite into a hot pepper.

We had two vegetable dishes, quite similar except one was cooked, with noodles, and one was stir-fried, without noodles.  Normally, the stir-fried one includes meat, but one of the group was on a meat fast for a month so it was left out for her sake.
Stir-fried on the left, cooked on the right.
The soup was tom kaa gai with a coconut milk base and a distinct lemongrass flavor.

Then there was the interesting offering of pork sausage stuffed into pieces of squid.  The squid part, it turned out, was actually supposed to be eaten.  I took one small bite and found it quite rubbery and terrible, like chewing on the fat rubber band on a bunch of broccoli, with a fishy flavor.


Thai mushrooms are just cute.

It was a fun group.
The standard utensils in Thailand are forks and big spoons--what we use as soup spoons in the U.S.--for most food, and occasionally little dipper-like spoons for soup.

The forks are used as pushers and the spoons are for scooping and eating.  Usually the meat is cut into small pieces so no knife is needed, but if something needs cutting, such as the bony chicken pieces in the soup, the spoon is used.
It seems a bit uncouth at first, but it's an efficient way to eat.

Depending where you eat, you use chopsticks, but not very often.  I suspect it's for foods that are more Chinese.

Edit: Amy says, "Chopsticks vs. fork/spoon depends more on what you're eating than where you're eating. Often places will have both available, and if you order a soup with noodles you'll use the chopsticks and short spoon, and if you order something else you'll use the fork and long spoon"

When you sit on the mat to eat, it seems it's ok to bring a soup bowl up close to your mouth to eat, but the plate stays on the mat, and there's a definite art to spooning up the rice and noodles and toppings and veggies while sitting up straight, without leaving a trail of dribbles across the mat and up your skirt.

Later that evening, Amy's young friend Kim also came over, needing help with two assignments.  One was a paper on human trafficking, in English, which seemed a terribly difficult assignment for her level of English.  Amy and Kimberly thought I would be the perfect person to help her, so she and I went off to Kimberly's room and waded through that.

The other assignment was to prepare a demonstration on the difference between European and American table manners.  She pulled up a video on her iPad showing an American woman at a fancy dinner table showing us how to use all three forks and two spoons and numerous knives. 

It all seemed kind of silly, considering how polite and tidy the Thai guests had been with one fork and one spoon.

I told Kim the main difference is that Americans switch the knife and fork after they cut and before they eat, and Europeans don't.

I got some silverware from the kitchen, including a sharp vegetable knife since I couldn't find a butter knife, and demonstrated until Kim felt capable of demonstrating to the class herself.

Typically, I forgot to put it away, and Kimberly was a bit unnerved to find a big knife on her bed after everyone left.

She laughed when I explained, since she finds it easy to laugh at things.

It was a good evening.


  1. I love hearing your thoughts on everyday rituals in Thailand. I feel like I'm there with you!

  2. I just love Thai food--but of course I'm talking about eating at restaurants like Ta Ra Rin in Eugene or that little one off on a side street near the north end of Junction City. Are you familiar with either of those places? If so, how does the taste of their food compare to "The Real Thai Dinner" that you described here?

  3. What are you supposed to do with the pieces of hot pepper in your food? Do you spit them out or swallow without chewing?

  4. Thanks, Crystal!
    Ruby, I'm not familiar with the ones you mentioned, but we like the Thai restaurant in Harrisburg, and I'd say their food is pretty authentic.
    Katie, you're supposed to leave the hot peppers in your bowl, but if you do happen to put them in your mouth, I hope it's ok to spit them out into your spoon, because that's what I did, and no one acted like it was inappropriate.

  5. Ooops. Make that Harrisburg--not Junction City. I meant Air Thai Cuisine located at 180 Moore St., Harrisburg. I think it's a gem. Now if I could just remember where it is!!! (Good thing my husband knows. We go there sometimes when we are on our way to or from visiting our daughter's family in Junction City.)

    But what is the biggest treat in Thai food for my taste is Ta Ra Rin in Eugene. It is a little more expensive but well worth the cost--and the wait! You might want to do yourself a favor the next time you want to celebrate a special occasion and go to Ta Ra Rin in Eugene. But Google it first to verify their (sometimes different) hours and to preview their descriptive picture menu so that you can pick out in advance what number you want to order.

    By the way, I've been told that there is a Ta Ra Rin in Springfield, too; but I've never been to that one, so will not comment on it.

  6. It's been so interesting to hear your stories on Thailand. My daughter is actually there in Chaing Mai right now with the World Race.