Why do Thais use a fork and spoon for eating?

My apologies to Kevin for using his post here. It’s just too damn interesting to let slip by for a chowhound like me. I intend to use this post as the start of a series on the history of the spoon and fork in Thailand.
Kevin’s original post is reproduced below:

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?

My response:

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 easier 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.

Yes, I aspire to be a utensil nerd.
To be continued, hopefully.

23 thoughts on “Why do Thais use a fork and spoon for eating?”

  1. Very interesting. I always wondered about this too. When I was living in London many years back I used to have lunch in a café run by Thai people. They always had one Thai dish on their otherwise English lunch menu which was served with fork and spoon. I got so used to that combo that I started using those two items at home too as I found it just so much easier when eating dishes with rice – and I cook a lot with rice as I like Asian food in general. I’ve even converted my partner to eating this way! 🙂

  2. I think Thais think knives are bad and dangeorous. And knives can be used only to cut foods. For them, it is better that one utensil can be used more than 2 different ways. I think they used to use them when introduced by Europeans centuries ago. But they found it stupid of using knives when eating.

  3. Interesting. Pilipino folks also use the spoon/fork combo. Not sure if it’s held the same way – but, I think so. So, who had it first? Now I want to eat Adobo and rice. Shit.

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  5. I have a neighbor from Holland; I’ll ask him about eating habits there and report back to my fellow utensil otakus.
    (sayaka eigo gambare)

  6. Sorry to jump on this, but I thought I contribute some more: Dutch people eat the same way as other Europeans, with fork and knife (I know as I lived there for seven years), mainly using spoons for soup or desserts. So far I haven’t met any Europeans who did this differently unless they didn’t have any manners (going by convention here). However, I found a difference between Europe and and the US: the Europeans keep the fork in the left and the knife in the right hand and eat from the fork in the left hand, while many people in the US seem to lay the knife down and then to move the fork to the right hand to eat after they cut up whatever needed to be cut up first. I was told by a friend from the US that this was the polite way there.

    1. If you mean moving the fork to the right hand is polite in the US, then you are mistaken. Shifting the fork to the right hand is just our convention and usually is not given a second thought. I recall my college roommate – from Iowa- teaching a classmate eating etiquette before a job interview and he emphasized the fork in left hand as polite and proper. I know that some big businesses hold workshops for their staff on proper eating etiquette and they teach keeping the fork in the left hand. (My partner did this at Medtronic and other friends have reported the same within their businesses The other “ISIS” is a misnomer anyway. It is an American misinterpretation of the…

      1. Thanks for the input, Donald. For some reason, your comment got scrambled, and I tried to fix it as best I could. I’m interested in the last bit you were writing – could you finish it? I’ll append it to the original comment, if you want.

    2. ‘Polite way there?’, really? I don’t buy it. It’s just ignorance to the established ‘old’ rules. If I recall correctly, the cowboys only had a spoon for all the eating and drinking moments.
      And we are not getting any better, au contraire, it’s getting worst with the new generation. Kids these days don’t know how to hold their eating tools: from spoon to fork and knives. Parents are too busy to teach them, unfortunately.

  7. > I was told by a friend from the US that this
    > was the polite way there.
    It was when I was growing up but I’ve noticed more Americans eating the European way with the fork staying in the left hand. If you think about it, using the fork/knife combination with this eating style for unwieldy things like the loose rice in a pilaf, or even mashed potatoes is kind of silly; a spoon/fork combo would be much better suited for it.
    All this talking about utensils has got me thinking that maybe a (standard) spork / (sharpened on side) spork combination might be best.

  8. Hi,
    Interesting post.
    This is how I explain to my American wife why we (Thai) end up w/ fork and spoon. Historically, we eat food by hand. You know rolling rice in to a bite size small ball. Spoon is also used to scoop up soup, curry and stir fry to one own dish. I remember two of my late grand mother ate that way.
    Using eating utencils probably started in the palace after Rama 4th or the 5h, when many of the prince got educated by the western. And it spread from there. If I recall correctly there’s a mention in the novel “Si Pandin” (Four Reigns, a life story of Mae Ploy who lived through four kings from Rama the 5th through the 8th) Fork and spoon is probably the most practical for our food, and the best compromise.
    In the States, in most Thai restaurant I go to, asking for chopsticks, and eating Thai food, except the noodle soup dish, consider insulting. I remember one patron asked for chopsticks. The waitress explaned to her that they don’t have any, and we, Thai, eat with fork and spoon. That lady just whip a pair of chopsticks from her pocketbook. I find it impossible to eat rice serving on a flat plate, don’t you.
    Now, we use chopsticks too, but for noodle soup. 🙂
    Just my 2c.

  9. Man oh man – you really opened up my eyes! Why do Thais use a fork and spoon for eating? – C. Buddha’s Hasty Musings was a wonderful read.

    1. My wife and I just spent a couple of weeks in Thailand eating with a large tablespoon and a fork. The fork is held upside down as in Europe and is used to fill up the spoon to a rounded mound. The very full spoon is inserted directly (perpendicular) into the mouth, not half sideways like an American eating ice cream. The teeth are then carefully used to pull the food off the spoon without scrapping the teeth on the metal or using the lips. The lips stay clean. The fork is used occasionally, but not commonly, to spear and eat a piece of meat or fish if that is easier. Small dessert spoons are used at the end of the meal. It is very efficient until you need to cut something with the edge of the spoon. Knives are used in the place settings at restaurants catering to Westerners. The utinsels are held in the hands unless you are taking a drink or “talking with your hands”.

    1. That’s probably not the case – many Thais are of Chinese descent (Thailand has the largest overseas Chinese population), and pretty much all Thais do use chopsticks for eating noodles (in soup).

  10. I might need to remind people that Thailand was once called Siam. The musical “The King and I” derived from the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, governess to the children of King Mongkut of Siam in the early 1860s. The musical’s plot relates the experiences of Anna, a British schoolteacher hired as part of the King’s drive to modernize his country.

    There I think you have it.

    The average citizens were either commanded or simply adopted the use of western eating implements in an effort to copy the royalty.

    As to why they did not adopt the knife, I would tend to subscribe to the “already cut” school of thought. Fish can be flaked easily with a fork, stir fried food is already in bite sized pieces, and meats, come skewered cooked on a brazier, or pre sliced (in my Bangkok food stall experience) into finger food sized pieces.

    The primary European implement used by Royals for eating was the knife to slice their roast meats, and the fingers holding bread. The average folk used their fingers. Forks and spoons (ladles) were usually found only in the kitchen and were too large for eating. They only made their way onto the table of France introduced to French Court by Catherine de Medici in 1533, forks slowly started to gain grounds in French. That is not to say that they did not use something before metal wear. “Spoon” in old Anglo-Saxon means “chip of wood”, probably a curly cue made by the blade plain of a carpenter.

    My point is table wear really did not become into vogue in Europe until the 1700’s not too long before it was introduced to Thailand.
    I asked the female companion I spend several weeks with about the spoon and fork, sans knife, and she couldn’t explain it, saying simply, “we don’t need it, use your teeth.”

  11. Hi, I found it interesting that you asked why Thailand is one of the few countries in Asia not to use chopsticks. If looking back in history it because Thailand wasn’t influenced by the Sino culture since geographically the country has imported the majority of influence from India, along with religion. Unlike China, Thai people preferred eating with hands since they believed that eating from hand is healthier since it’s from your own body. Which is why in ancient times Thai people would have a side bowl of water to wash their hand from before and after eating their meals. The usage of chopstick came when Thailand first was introduced with Chinese style noodles which became a practice trend. For silverware, prior to Imperialism, one of the Thai king introduced the practice of eating the way European after his tour in Europe around early 1900 which became a common practice to this day. Comparing to China, Korea, and Japan, Thailand wasn’t a closed country so any foreign ideas anything that would benefit people are often well accepted and sometimes is adapted. Which is why Thailand is unique of prefering both western way of eating utensil and chopsticks. For China and other East Asian countries, since they faced isolation, the idea of eating with fork is quite limited prior to not accepting new ideas.

    1. Very interesting! That historical background contrasts sharply with today, now that Thailand is the home of the largest overseas population of Chinese.

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