As I watched my favorite street vendor whip up the usual thirty baht (approximately $1 USD) shrimp pad thai, I noticed that she added more love into it than usual on this particular evening. Devouring the perfect blend of sweet and sour rice noodles, it dawned on me what separates Thai cuisine so greatly from others: that extra bit of love that comes in every dish.
I've always been inspired by all things food, so it was only natural that my appreciation for Thai cuisine (at least the Americanized version) influenced my move abroad.
After eight months in Thailand, I feel at home in a culture that prioritizes their unique food culture. My body has accumulated to the Thai diet for breakfast, lunch and dinner – so much so that I can no longer taste food if it isn’t spicy. When I started working amongst Thai people, I was suddenly bombarded with an interrogation of my eating schedule. My Thai co-workers ask me as they pass by my desk: “gin khao reu yung?” literally meaning, "Have you eaten rice yet?"
Just as Americans greet each other with “What’s up?” or “How’s it going?” and my new British friends acknowledge one another other with “Are you alright?” Thai people’s priority is on food. Inquiring about your eating habits is their way of expressing an interest in your well-being.
A Thai co-worker asked me if I was hungry while driving me home, and seconds later we were pulled over to fix this seemingly urgent hunger problem. She treated me to “gwai job,” a chicken noodle soup with egg, and a shared plate of meatballs. Through the limited conversation that our poor versions of one another’s languages allowed, she questioned me about my nightly eating habits. She continues to ask me every day what I will eat for dinner, and is sincerely concerned if I go eat by myself.
For Thai people, eating is about sharing and caring. Rarely does a group of Thai people order individual dishes – instead, multiple entrees are ordered for the table as well as the essential staple of white rice. There's no rhyme or reason to the order in which dishes arrive; they come out as they are ready and everyone indulges. Despite the quick food service, the elaborate flavors of each curry and stir-fry are seeping with the care in which they were prepared with.
The myriad of food stalls, even in the most arbitrary locations and times, are always full of Thai people eating. With food stalls full at all hours of the day, I sometimes wonder if their full-time job is basking in the glory of the Thai food culture. For such a petite people, they really have room to pack on the carbohydrates; there is no meal without noodle or rice.
When you speak with a Thai person about food, you can sense the jubilation that it brings to their life. The standard greeting “have you eaten rice yet?” is more than just a customary salutation amongst friendly faces – this saying embodies the atmosphere of the food culture here in Thailand.
Thai people have taken the most primitive survival tool for human beings and turned it into something much more than that. Eating is the pivotal activity of the Thai way of life, as well as the vehicle for bringing people together. Once you have experienced eating an authentic Thai meal with the native people, you will understand how eating can be transformed into a spiritual, enriching and unifying experience.