Dining a la Lanna
Sitting down to a well presented meal of good and delicious food is something most of us enjoy. Then there are those stand-up occasions where we mix'n mingle with other guests and enjoy cocktails and finger foods. Finger foods? Eating with one's fingers? Considered as neither polite nor hygienic in some circles, eating with our fingers is as old as the human race. There is absolutely nothing wrong with it as we all do it perhaps without thinking.
In Thailand many people still eat with their fingers and this has nothing to do with social strata. It depends, rather, on the place, the occasion and the meal that is being served. A Thai hostess will follow a set etiquette when offering a meal that will be eaten with the fingers and those eating will be polite and delicate as they partake of the meal.
Traditional Thai meals are rarely "one plate" experiences so the Western concept of having "meat, two veg and gravy" all on the one plate is alien to Thai dining. Likewise, the use of an array of cutlery seems to be overkill in Thai minds (most Thais settle for fork & spoon when not using their fingers). Unless one is invited to a Thai home, the closest most visitors get to Dining a la Lanna (northern Thai) is at a Kantoke Dinner so this is something you might like to try.
Thai dishes are taste experiences! A hostess will have taken great care to balance the favors and aromas of the individual dishes she is presenting to her family or guests. There will be subtle differences from spicy to bland, sweet to sour, creamy to tangy and all meats, fowl, fish or fruit will be cut small into bight sized pieces. Ideally but depending upon the number of people going to eat, the "main" dishes (perhaps seven or eight in number) will be the centerpiece of the table. Each person will have an individual bowl of rice (sometimes sticky rice) and a finger bowl of lime scented water to rinse the fingers.
Using the fingers of the right hand, a small portion of rice is taken from one's bowl, kneaded into a bite-sized ball (it takes a little practice!) and the ball is dipped into the desired main dish (a portion can be melded onto the rice ball) before being popped into the mouth. The fingers shouldn't really enter one's mouth (the food shouldn't be "crammed") as the movements are politely delicate. A rinse of the fingers and the process is repeated again and again. Thais from the humblest to the highest continue to dine in this traditional manner when the cultural or home occasion arises and they are adept at making it look easy and gracious.
A midday meal is generally recognized as "dinner time" (as it used to be in the West, anything taken later being either tea or supper) in Thailand. In the cities, office workers, school children, laborers and technicians all rush to canteens or restaurants for their midday meal. It is something to be enjoyed with appreciation and the company of friends. Even the Thai farmer will relax in the shade and have his midday meal, using his fingers, from a pinto (cylindrical, multi tiered meal container for rice and separate savory dishes). Alas, modern day pressures are forcing meals to become more and more hurried so Thailand is no stranger to international fast food franchises. And most of these are eaten with the fingers!
Dining a la Lanna also means being an inveterate "snacker". Thais love to snack between meals it's not a matter of hunger but of more "taste experiences". Most Thais do not overeat (most are from slim to medium build), and most Thai food is very healthy in content, so the "snackers" are able to indulge. Maybe a portion of papaya salad, a small bag of grilled squid, a piece of fruit or a wedge of sangkhaya custard all delicious, all eaten with the fingers and all part of Dining a la Lanna. So leave that mountain of cutlery in the kitchen and indulge yourself by Dining a la Lanna it's fun to let your fingers do the eating!
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