In Foreign Parts: Minimalist manners of forks, spoons and sticky fingers

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The Independent Online

Getting to grips with Thai etiquette requires a certain knack. Waving a blade in your hand at table is considered overly aggressive by well-mannered locals, who cut gently with the edge of a spoon. Even putting the pointed tines of a fork inside the mouth can be seen as brutish, although for six months my tolerant Thai friends were way too polite to point out a farang's faux pas.

Getting to grips with Thai etiquette requires a certain knack. Waving a blade in your hand at table is considered overly aggressive by well-mannered locals, who cut gently with the edge of a spoon. Even putting the pointed tines of a fork inside the mouth can be seen as brutish, although for six months my tolerant Thai friends were way too polite to point out a farang's faux pas.

Spearing a morsel with your fork is rude, too. For politesse, you push food on to a spoon with your fork before savouring it.

Here in the Big Mango, spoons and forks were introduced in the 19th century. Chopsticks are used only for noodles. Up north, where sticky rice comes in bamboo baskets, fingers are preferred.

Two centuries ago, when merchant princes would dazzle guests with heirloom flatware beside each plate, it caught the attention of the Thai elite. The monarch ordered a full European silver service. But the glittering place setting was ostentatious and confusing. Deftly, this Siamese sage eliminated anything that duplicated the function of a basic implement. Knives were banished, as it could be risky to arm one's fellow diners. Eventually, all that was left was a tablespoon and a dinner fork.

Thais are baffled by snobbery about the sequential use of multiple forks and spoons. They prefer to crowd the table with tasty dishes to share, and not be caught in a tangle of cutlery. You first spoon rice on your plate, because this shows gratitude for the meal.

At a formal dinner, Thais are accustomed to perhaps a dozen courses, but only one fork, one spoon and one moist towelette. That's why 50 young students at a time enrol in Khun Janya Ya's half-day classes at a Bangkok hotel on Western table manners.

He gets asked why Westerners discard prawn shells on the plate that they are still eating from, mixing garbage with dinner, instead of tossing them on the tablecloth or the floor.

And why do tourists heap their plates instead of taking one spoonful at a time from a central dish? Do they think the food will run out? So many slurp their fingers or leave nothing behind on plates. Can such large people really be so hungry?

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