I am sure I don't need to tell you how important the presentation of food is to the enjoyment of a meal. This page is intended to compare a couple of very different, but equally enjoyable (for some people) scenarios of people eating food in Thailand.

Let's imagine that the year is 1965. Beside the canal (named Klong San Saeb) is a fine teak house. It is evening and Jim Thompson, it's American owner and renowned reviver of the Thai silk industry, is preparing to receive his small party of half a dozen dinner guests.

As they arrive singly and in couples, they are given a drink and chat convivially among the tropical plants and Buddha statues, which Jim has collected during his forays into the Thai countryside.

Eventually they are ushered into the dining room. It is not huge, but it's center-piece is a magnificent antique table, laid out beautifully with highly polished, locally forged bronze cutlery, lead crystal glasses and the finest Thai celadon porcelain.

In the background, classical Thai music is playing quietly, while busy, but unobtrusive servants, present the delicious courses of food, one by one.

When I said imagine it, that is exactly what I have had to do. In 1965 I was just only one year old, so even if I had been invited to one of Jim's dinner parties, I would not have remembered it. However having participated in several guided tours around his former residence, that is how I imagine it may have been.

No doubt a similar scene was and still is, played out in the households of high ranking Thais, both in Thailand and abroad.

Certainly if you go to a Thai restaurant in just about any country, including Thailand, you can almost assess the size of your bill by the quality and antiquity of the Buddha statues on display.

Personally I love being treated to meals in such places, especially in the rare ones where they also cook good food. Seriously though, I am amazed at how far presentation goes. I have been served some dreadful meals in wonderful surroundings. It sometimes seemed that the only person to be disappointed was me.

Now let's switch to my second scenario. It is Sunday and more than thirty five years have passed since the previous gathering.

Three men are crouched in the tiny backyard of a four story concrete shop-house, in a far flung suburb of modern day Bangkok. One of them is barbequing some chicken wings over glowing charcoal embers in a galvanized iron bucket, which is lined with what looks like a large thick terracotta flower pot. Another is chopping up raw fish on a large slab of wood, using a ferocious and rather unhygienic looking meat cleaver.

The third chap is making himself useful by pouring Thai whisky into glasses full of ice cubes. These are for himself and his two more gainfully employed brothers-in-law.

Inside the shop-house on the ground floor, just a few yards from the men, are five women. They are all sister of whom three are married to the men outside. They are peeling onions and garlic, cutting up bamboo shoots, squeezing limes, pounding chilies and keeping an eye on the boiling pots and the electric rice cooker.

Thirty minutes later they are all together sitting cross or side legged in a circle, on cheap mass produced rush mats, eating their feast. By this time a small posse of children of varying ages have also joined the group.

Their cutlery consists of a cheap pressed alloy spoon and fork each. Their plates and bowls are made of hard plastic of varying colors, shades and sizes.

Some use their hands to scoop up balls of Kao Neow (sticky rice) from a tightly woven rattan basket, which they then dip into the various curries and sauces before popping them into their mouths.

The more demure (and weight conscious) use their spoon and fork to help themselves to the same curries and sauces, but this time on a bed of Kao Suey (boiled white rice) served onto a plate, from the rice cooker.

The room is about 30 feet long and 12 feet wide. It is painted in plain white emulsion. The floor is gray unpainted concrete. At the front is the shop area, where cigarettes, some groceries and chilled soft drinks are sold to passing customers

A few feet away from the festivities, high up on a brightly painted red and gold wooden platform, are three small statues. The most expensive of these probably cost no more than five dollars, but no one is sure because two of them were gifts from an uncle, since deceased.

The first of these statues is of Long Pau Sorthorn, a buddhist monk revered by this particular family. Another is of King Chulalongkorn, also known as Rama V, the most popular of the past Thai Kings.

The third one is of the lady Nang Quack, who is expected to help bring good business to the establishment. Each day she is given a small glass of red cherry soda, as an offering. The other two statues receive fresh water. Everyday a fresh garland of Frangipani is placed on the platform and incense is burned.

A few feet away a television has been tuned onto a European soccer match. A few grains of cooked rice occasionally transverse the room, resulting from a guttural roar, when it looks like someone might score.

The meal and the soccer match are occasionally interrupted by customers. Among the adult males, many want to purchase just two cigarettes, and expect a free light for the first one. The children often want a Coke or Pepsi Cola. This is served in a clear polythene bag full of ice, with a straw.

After the meal is finished and the dishes have been washed, a couple of microphones are plugged into the video player. By now the whisky has banished any inhibitions and normally shy members of the family, launch into modern Thai pop songs with gusto.

So there my second scenario ends.

My guess is that most people reading this page, will be more likely to be trying to create an atmosphere closer to the first situation. Certainly for those who are not Asian, sitting on chairs at a table is likely to be much more comfortable  than sitting on the floor. Having said that, who would forget your dinner party if you copied the second scenario?

What difference does all this make to the cooking?

None what so ever!


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Copyright 2004 Warunee Mekkhunthod - All rights reserved.