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FIRST TIME EATING...   THAI FOOD

THE FOOD VIRGIN'S FIRST TIME

My first time eating Thai food, it hit my tongue like a swarm of kamikazes blasting my unsuspecting tastebuds.  No one had told me that Thai cooks like their food to excite every area of your mouth, and so mix sweet, salty, sour, and spicy hot, together in every meal.  The tom yam goong soup was the best example of this, leaving my poor tongue stunned for the rest of the night.  Now that I know what to expect, it’s one of my favorite foods, both for the food itself, and the dining experience as a whole, and I’m clearly not alone; Thai restaurants are spreading fast across America.

 

 

Tell us about your first time eating Thai

 

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

            At many restaurants, like the very popular, top-rated Kittichai in New York City, from the moment you enter, you’ll feel a warm welcome in serene surroundings, often decorated with pink and white orchids or Buddhist images.  At many Thai restaurants, your hostess might say, “Sawadee ka!” meaning, “Hello!” as you walk in the door.  She may even be wearing traditional dress, and might do the wai, a kind of traditional physical greeting, with hands pressed together and to the chest.  A smile and “Hello!” back is a perfectly fine response, though Chef Ian Chalermkittichai of the Kittichai restaurant explains, “You can say ‘Sawadee’ back.”  As for the wai, you can skip that.  “Mostly, you have to do it for people who are older [or higher ranking than you].”   

 

Once seated, you’ll find that the cutlery laid out will typically include a fork, spoon and chopsticks- but probably not a knife.  This is OK because, like with Chinese food, Thai food is served in small, bite-sized pieces.  Use the fork and spoon to eat your entrée, as the chopsticks are only normally used to eat noodles.  If there is also the choice of a white, ceramic spoon, use that to eat any soup that you order.  Typically, this will only be brought out with the soup that you order, but if it’s already on your table, use it, and not the silver spoon for your soup.

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WHAT TO ORDER & HOW TO EAT IT

            When ordering, you’ll find that Thai menus list appetizers, and then typically split the main dish choices into categories, like ‘rice and noodles’, ‘curries’, ‘chicken’, ‘beef’, ‘seafood’, ‘vegetables’, and so on.  The names of dishes might be written in Thai, sometimes also in English, but the descriptions will always be in English.  If you want to order using the Thai names, pronounce them phonetically. 

Thai snacks are tasty, so I recommend not skipping the appetizer section.  Satay- slightly sweet marinated chicken or beef on skewers- is a great first-time starter, as it’s not spicy at all.  Spring rolls are popular- they are typically made from chopped vegetables and shrimp or pork and can come either fried or not, with both versions being less greasy than typical Chinese egg rolls.  Fish cakes, which you can think of as a relative of the crab cake, are also on many Thai menus.  As these dishes are brought out, little dishes of dipping sauces will accompany them.  Some are sweet, some are hot, some are salty, some are not.  Double-check with your waiter as to which sauce goes with which appetizer.

If you’re not feeling very adventurous, beware of the soup and salad choices.  Salads are not the lettuce and tomato concoctions that we’re used to.  They may well be hot (both temperature and spicy hot!) and be made up of mostly beef and citrus such as pomello, or shredded fruit, like papaya with chili.  “In a salad expect all the 5 elements:  spicy, sweet, salty, sour, and with aromatic Thai herbs, to make it really unique,” says Chef Ian.  Soup is often served at the same time as the rest of the meal, not beforehand.  Tom Yam Kung (also spelled Tom Yum Goong) is the most famous Thai soup.  With its mix of hot and sour flavors, it epitomizes what Thai food is.  If you want something milder, though, try the Tom Kha Gai- it’s a delicious coconut chicken soup that can be served as mild as you like (be sure to specify!), and is what I prefer.

            For ordering main dishes, try to include a different meat with each dish.  Also, have a mix of spicy vs. mild, and saucy vs. dry.  A good combination for Thai food virgins is a green chicken curry, pad thai noodles with shrimp, spicy beef salad, and some mixed vegetables.  If the restaurant seems like it’s got a good supply of fresh fish then deep-fried fish is often nice too.  Another popular dish that’s one of my favorites is olive rice, being tastier than plain rice, but a nice change from fried rice.  Whether you choose plain or olive rice, each diner will get their own plate or bowl of rice; bring food from the shared dishes, and keep it with your rice until eating you’re ready to eat it.  So do you need rice?  “With some of the certain dishes, like curry,” Chef Ian explains, “We recommend to have it with rice.” 

 

 

Share more tips of your own

WHAT TO DRINK 

Thailand is abundant with exotic fruit, so you will usually find fruit drinks on the menu.  Lime juice, pineapple juice, mango, lychee and coconut-based drinks might all be available.  For alcoholic drinks, the most well-known Thai beer is Singha.  Kittichai creates cocktails such as the lemongrass martini and lemon basil mojitos.

DESSERT & COFFEE

For dessert, the choices will typically range from the very familiar cut fruit, such as papayas, to the ubiquitous mango sticky rice, which is usually popular with kids.  Coconut is also commonly found in Thai desserts, such as coconut ice cream, cake or Kanom Krok, coconut-rice pancakes.

Thai restaurants traditionally offer both tea and coffee.  The coffee is strong-roasted.  “It is like Vietnamese coffee.  It is very strong, very intense,” says Chef Ian.  The tea, meanwhile, originates from India and is a rich orange color.  Drink both with milk and sugar, if you like.  “We drink our coffee and tea really sweet.  We put sugar in and use condensed milk a lot.” 

 

THE LAST WORD

            No matter where you live these days, you should be able to find a Thai restaurant nearby.   Most will serve a combination of Thai street food (like satay), and Thai Royal Cuisine (like the typically beautifully presented deep fried fish dishes).  By ordering a balanced menu, and keeping your mind and taste buds open and ready for a powerful blend of flavors, you’ll likely enjoy your first time eating Thai food.  For me, it’s become one of my most favorite cuisines.

 

CRITICAL DO’S AND DEFINITELY DON’TS

Do

  • Ask for the waiter’s help to order a nice mix of food for your group, as well as the right amount.  It takes a while to learn how to choose the right balance of flavors, as well as how much food is in each dish.
  • Use your chopsticks to serve food from the shared dishes to yours, if no serving spoons come with the dish.  Also use them to eat any noodle dishes you order, like Pad Thai.  Your fork and spoon silverware are for eating the other dishes.
  • Beware of bones in fish.  In the U.S., some deep-fried fish will be de-boned, so as to make it easier to eat, but if you’re not sure about your own fish, ask the waiter.

 

  • Ask how spicy is spicy at that restaurant.  With dishes where you can specify how spicy you’d like it, some restaurants have a spicy scale out of 10.  Get an understanding of the scale before you pick a number (like, is a 5 similar to mild barbecue wings, or hot buffalo wings?).

 

Don’t

  • Don’t eat the whole lime leaves or lemongrass stalks that might be found in your tom yam goong.  Just leave them at the bottom of the bowl along with any small chilies that might be too hot (remember: Typically, the smaller the chili, the hotter it is!).  These items may also be found in other dishes too, especially the curries.
  • Don’t hoard food by grabbing heaps of what you want from the shared serving plates and keeping it all on your own plate, leaving none for anyone else! 
  • Don’t eat rice and noodles in the same bite.  They are both starches and should be eaten separately.
  • Don’t leave your utensils all over the place.  There will usually be a stand or holder for your chopsticks and sometimes spoons too, when you’re not using them.  Silverware can rest on your plate in the American way.  Leave the ceramic spoon on a plate underneath your soup bowl, or in your soup bowl when you’re done.

 

 

Suggest more DOs and DON'Ts

 

BASIC THAI FOOD TERMS

Pad Thai- The famous noodle dish, made with flat rice noodles, and added seasoning, as well as usually shrimp.  Ask for the chili on the side of you aren’t sure how hot you want it.

Thai Green Curry-  Can be made with chicken, beef or seafood, this is a popular curry, where the sauce is made from a fresh cilantro and coconut base.  Not to be missed.

Tom Yam Goong- (also called Tom Yam Kung) The soup that’s hot, sour, sweet and spicy, tom yam goong is a clear soup that usually has shrimp in it too.

Tom Kha Gai-  Coconut-based chicken soup.  Ask about the spiciness.

Satay- The Thai version of a kebob.  Usual choices are chicken and beef, satay is typically mild and comes with a peanut dipping sauce.

Mango Sticky Rice- The most popular dessert for all ages.  Exactly what it says it is.

Masaman Curry- The Thai version of beef and potato stew.  Not particularly spicy.

Yum Nua- Spicy beef salad. 

 

 

Add more Thai food term items to the list

 

FAMILY-FRIENDLINESS

Thai food is a pretty good choice for people with kids.  Most kids like chicken satay, and most Thai restaurants serve this.  It is also possible to get plain rice, stir-fried vegetables or noodles.  Kids who are willing to try new dishes would probably like pandan chicken, which comes in fun pandan leaf packages and has a sweet accompanying sauce.  They might also like tom kha gai, if they like soup.  Dessert, of course, would probably also go over well. 

 

RATINGS  

Child-friendly Food (is it easy to find things that American kids will eat):  7.5/10

Adventure Level (how different is this from standard American food):  9/10

 

 

What do you think? Rate Thai food yourself!

 
 

To eat Thai food where the Food Virgin go to:  Kittichai Thai restaurant

60 Thompson, Thompson Hotel, New York, NY 10012 (212)  219-2000

 

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