America has a very self-interesting food culture. For example if you go out to a generic chain restaurant and order a dish you’ll have your meat and a couple sides like veggies or a potato all for yourself. There’s no real sharing, probably a couple bites here and there, but ultimately your dish is for you to consume on your own. Like most Asian cultures eating family style is the norm.
Family style eating is fun and you get to enjoy many different types of dishes. If you go out to eat at a restaurant in Thailand expect to spend a few hours out. Eating out is an event. You sit and savor your meal over drinks and good conversation. Meals are always enjoyed family style and a there is a wide variety of dishes and flavors because you have to obtain a balance of salty, sour, sweet, salty, bitter & spicy. There is almost a never ending supply of food. Dishes keep coming and coming.
Generally, TOM YUM GOONG aka lemongrass soup is always ordered. This soup is always made with shrimp, if not then seafood. Expect the shrimp to have the head and shell on. It makes the soup so much more savory, and if you ever get a chance to suck on a shrimp head, just do it, you’ll actually be surprised.
However, some people order a soup called GAENG JUED, which means bland soup. This soup is generally made with a clear, pork broth, pork meatballs, onions, scallions, fresh tofu, mushrooms & glass noodles. This soup is meant to be not spicy. If this soup is ordered, the subsequent dishes will usually be spicy to balance out the flavors.
There is always rice, jasmine rice of course. Brown rice is just starting to become popular. Originally, brown rice was fed to prisoners as many believed it to be a lesser rice. Jasmine rice is quite sacred to the Thai people and generally you don’t even leave a grain behind on your plate. Along with a soup, several more dishes will be ordered: something spicy – pad pik khing with crispy pork belly, a vegetable – stir-fried morning glory, and a Thai salad – laab gai.
All dishes are in the middle with serving spoons for everyone to share. Everyone starts eating once the first dish arrives. Thais eat with a spoon and fork, or their hands (generally, if you are eating sticky rice you will use your hands). Chopsticks are saved for noodle dishes. A Thai person will never ever, ever, order PAD THAI at a restaurant unless of course there is a “farang” with them. (Farang, aka white person)
Also, in the Thai culture and in many other Asian cultures, asking the waitstaff to split the bill is unheard of. Only do it if you don’t mind losing face.
Next time eating out at a Thai restaurant try eating family style. You get to try so many more things making life just a bit more adventurous.