Speaking of Eating – How to get around the communication barrier when ordering Thai food.

ordering thai food

It’s a scene I won’t forget – a group of Japanese tourists. They had stopped a woman. There was some pointing and waving of maps. She nodded and started chattering at them in English. Blank looks. So she began all over again, slower this time, yelling every word clearly and distinctly, with predictable results. The next person did much better. She made sketches on their map, pointed and gestured, shook her head for ‘no’ and nodded for ‘yes, pantomimed driving, pointed at her watch to indicate time, held up fingers for numbers and had them all grinning like madmen in no time at all.

Communication happens in different ways. Even people with the same native language have problems. So over here, in Thailand, there are things you should know. English is the common tongue here for all nationalities. But you need to understand the Thai people. Not so much regarding the language, but about Thai society, their education and English skills, what words are common in both languages (‘menu’ and ‘burger’ for instance) and, generally, how to respond, and the attitude you need to get the best results.

But the first thing to say is that this all depends where you are. In tourist areas, staff who can speak English are very much in demand. So if you keep to the bigger and the better restaurants, then you’ll probably wonder why I’m writing this at all! Even the small Thai eateries, those little places with plastic chairs and strip lights, are likely to have at least one person you can talk with. Samui is now pretty good when it comes to spoken English. But if you get right off the track, even here, you might have to improvise a bit when ordering Thai food.

In Thailand, English is taught in the schools. But did you know that education isn’t compulsory? In rural communities where farming is the mainstay, all the children help with the work, hopping in and out of school with big gaps for planting and harvests. And then the quality of English taught is generally poor. Things are different in the cities, and students go on to
study at a higher level. But just as many don’t, then they drift to where the money is (i.e., the tourist places) and end up trying to self-teach. And they do what we all tend to do, learn lots of new words and then use these English words in place of Thai ones. And that’s the explanation for the very puzzling phrases you’ll often hear, such as ‘my friend you’, meaning ‘your friend’ –because the language structure is totally different.

Also keep it in mind that just the look of a place doesn’t guarantee easy dining. It’s always a tempting economy to save money on staff. And sometimes low-paid Thai floor staff will be nervous with their spoken English, even to the point of not understanding you at all. The sensible thing to here of course would be for them to trot off and find someone else to come to your table. But Thais have an overwhelming fear of being embarrassed. And you might just find yourself abandoned, as the red-faced girl hops away to hide. This will happen in all sorts of situations – I’ve even seen it in banks, and more than just once or twice! Although often it’s a lot to do with your attitude, too.

Happily most visitors to Thailand are very much aware that they’re guests, and are friendly and respectful to the people they meet. Yet you’ll still see the odd one snapping their fingers to attract a waiter, or shouting across the room. And, yes, even the best of staff sometimes make mistakes, especially when busy or with a big order. Perhaps they should have been more organised when writing it all down. But you’ll achieve nothing by getting angry or scornful. Not in this country, for sure. People won’t dash about in response – probably the opposite! A gentle, friendly and patient response softens any
loss of face the staff are feeling and, if nothing else, makes you look like the educated and refined person you undoubtedly are.

A great many restaurants have now adopted the practice of photo-style menus with the names of the dishes written alongside in Thai and English, possibly also Russian and Chinese. That solves a lot of problems all at once. All you need to do is point and smile. But you’ll find it a little more challenging if you adventure away from the tourist hot-spots. And this is where you’ll need a bit of planning first.

The most obvious thought is a Thai-English dictionary. In which case you’re going to need one specifically for use in restaurants – the general pocket-style ones always have minimal food information, and usually the phrases they’ve assembled are annoyingly sparse and generic. And it’s best not to try and pronounce the Thai phrases: Thai is a tonal language and it’s more than likely you won’t be understood. Just point at the phrase in question, and the Thai meaning. Although there are some exceptions to this, and probably the most important is if you have any kind of special dietary needs. In this case prepare in advance. Make sure you find the meaning for ‘gluten free’ or ‘no MSG / sugar’ and print it out and carry it with you.

Lastly – vegetarians. On the whole, Thais are puzzled by the concept, and few understand it outside of top hotels. Even prominent restaurants get confused. You’ll be commonly offered, for instance, a vegetable soup that has no meat, but is made with chicken broth. Thais don’t use animal fat for cooking, but also don’t clean utensils (like woks) in-between different dishes. And there’s no real alternative if this is important to you. You either have to seek-out a specialist restaurant (of which there are plenty) or stick to plain, fresh salads and uncooked vegetables.

But whatever your approach, don’t bother with those food apps for smartphones. Even the best paid ones are hopelessly limited in choice. You’ll get a Thai voice speaking – but that won’t help if it’s not what you want!

Rob De Wet