This article was originally posted on WomenLearnThai.com.
Spicing up your life Thai-style…
There is a basic difference between the philosophy behind western food and Thai food. Back home, a cook will make a dish the way it “should” be made. One might add to a dish by shaking a bit of salt and maybe a dash of pepper but if you want to insult the cook you can’t do better than dousing it with catsup or some hot sauce. In Thailand, you would be expected to add something.
Most dishes here are made generically, with the idea that each person has a different body chemistry and needs to add sweet, sour, hot, and salt to their own taste. When I first came to Thailand I wrote about my observations in a Bangkok Post article titled “The Noodle Polluters”.
Here’s what I observed: “I once saw a man add five scoops of sugar to his noodles, five scoops of vinegar, five scoops of chilies, and five shakes of fish sauce. When he tasted it I was sure he would have to spit it all out. He thought a second, added another scoop of sugar and a few more shakes of fish sauce and tasted again. I could tell from his facial expression that it was perfect.”
That is why you’ll see a tray of condiments on every restaurant table you’ll visit in Thailand. And of course, along with that comes a whole category of specialized vocabulary.
If your food is จืด /jèut/ (bland, tasteless), then it’s time to reach for that condiment tray.
The word เครื่องปรุงรส /krêuang-bprung-rót/ (condiment) is an example of how Thai words are often quite easy to understand even if you have never heard them before. If you have never heard the English word “condiment” you would only be able to guess what it means through context.
The Thai word เครื่องปรุงรส /krêuang-bprung-rót/ is made up of:
The thing which: เครื่อง /krêuang/ (has many meanings but here it is acting as a helper)
To cook, mix, blend, spice up, add flavor: ปรุง /bprung/
Flavor: รส /rót/
So เครื่องปรุงรส /krêuang-bprung-rót/ or the shorter version เครื่องปรุง /krêuang-bprung/ simply means “that which adds flavor”.
Let’s take a look at that ubiquitous condiment tray. On it you’ll find fish sauce.
Fish sauce: น้ำปลา /nám-bplaa/
น้ำปลา /nám (water) and ปลา /nám-bplaa/ (fish). Fish sauce is used by Thais to add a salty taste just as เกลือ /gleua/ (salt) is used in the west. Salt in the form of salt shakers is not often seen at a Thai table as the humid atmosphere here tends to clump up the salt and make it unshakable.
Sugar: น้ำตาล /nám-dtaan/
Sugar palm: ตาล /dtaan/ (which gives us a little linguistic-history lesson on where the first sugar in Thailand came from).
Chili (pepper): พริก /prík/
What you will usually see on the condiment tray is powdered chili พริกป่น /prík bpòn/. ป่น /bpòn/ is “to ground”. In English we use the word “pepper” to refer to 2 very different things. Thai distinguishes between พริก /prík/ (chili pepper), and พริกไทย /prík-tai/ (black pepper – literally “Thai pepper”). This distinguishing between the two tells us that black pepper is indigenous whereas the chilies that the Thais are so fond of originally came from somewhere else, most likely South America hundreds of years ago. I wonder what the Thai cooks did before chilies were brought here.
Vinegar, usually seen with floating sliced chilies: น้ำส้ม /nám-sôm/
Sour or orange (the fruit and the color): ส้ม /sôm/
น้ำส้ม /nám-sôm/ can also mean orange juice. So be careful when asking the waitress for น้ำส้ม /nám-sôm/. You might be surprised at what she brings you.
And we can never forget MSG. (Aside: When I was traveling in Costa Rice, IMO, the country with the worst tasting food in the world, their condiment tray consisted of shakers of salt, pepper, and MSG – a godsend.)
MSG: ผงชูรส /pǒng-choo-rót/
ผง /pǒng/ (powder) and ชู /choo/ (to boost flavor). Originally, the Thai word for MSG was อายิโนะโมะโต๊ะ /Ajinomoto/ the Japanese brand of MSG still sold here. You can sometimes still hear this word used as a generic term for MSG.
If you want your food without MSG try saying อย่าใส่ผงชูรส /yàa sài pǒng-choo-rót/ “don’t add MSG”. You may or may not get MSG added to your food.
There are some foods in Thailand (fish, shrimp, chicken, pork, spring rolls, etc.,) that are required to have their own specific dipping sauce. It is brought in a small dish or bowl along with the food. It is more or less an art form to know which sauces go with which dish. What I do is I watch what everyone else does and then do the same, trying not to commit that terrible faux pas of dipping in the wrong dipping sauce.
Dipping sauce: น้ำจิ้ม /nám-jîm/
To dip in, to poke: จิ้ม /jîm/ (ex. someone in the eye)
The word จิ้ม /jîm/ is also part of the Thai word ไม้จิ้มฟัน /mái-jîm-fan/ (toothpick – literally: the wood used to poke at your teeth).
Many westerners are off-put by the Thai custom of covering their mouth with one hand and using the other to vigorously “poke” at their teeth with a toothpick. No, they are not trying to gross you out. It is considered quite rude in Thai culture to show your teeth why excavating with a toothpick. So, it is completely acceptable, and in fact extra polite, to cover the mouth up and go at it. The Chinese though have no qualms about toothpick use.
Warning. Notice that จิ้ม /jîm/ is said with a falling tone. Please do not say this word with a rising tone. Then it becomes slang for a part of the female anatomy, something that should be left out of polite dinner conversation. Believe me, I know.
Hugh’s fun word for the month…
I just went to Pai (pronounced like “bye” as in “bye bye” not apple “pie”) and ran into this word exactly 672 times:
A curve or bend (in the road): โค้ง /kóhng/
There are t-shirts for sale all over Pai saying อ้วก /ûak/ (vomit). The more formal word for this activity is อาเจียน /aa-jian/ although there is nothing formal about it. And the shirts will also tell you that there are exactly 672 curves (672 โค้ง) from Chiang Mai to Pai. And I felt every one of them.
All along the roadside you will see this sign (sorry about the blurriness but it was a combination of the mini-bus and my stomach churning down the road together.
In Thai it says โค้งอันตราย /kóhng an-dtà~raai/
In English it reads “Sharp Curve”.
The real translation should be “Dangerous Curve” but that may be too disquieting for the many tourists who ride to Pai every day. So the translator just softened it out a bit. I guess he didn’t think about how a Thai reader would feel.
For those interested in practicing reading Thai through the use of roadside signs I have just completed a book ‘A Field Guide to Reading Thai Roadside Signs’. It is fun and easy and should give you great reading practice (and the pictures are lots clearer than this one). If you would like a copy, drop me a line from my website, Retire 2 Thailand, and I will send you a free eBook pdf.
Retire 2 Thailand
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4 thoughts on “Thai Language Thai Culture: Spicing Up Your Life”
Goodness: A historical glimpse of toothpick use: etiquette, oral and medical conditions.
WLT posts also get sucked over to FB so comments sometimes go there too. One question had me stumped: “I realise I have forgotten proper toothpick etiquette for outside Asia. Only use in private?”
It’s been too long so I don’t remember what the manners are for toothpicks outside Asia, only countries I’ve lived in / visited down here – cover mouth with one hand while using toothpick with the other.
Some Americans use is as a statement – toothpick hanging out out of mouth. And I vaguely remember in the west that I’d go off to a private place to use a toothpick.
Does anyone know what each of the cultures do? I know it’s also down to class, etc, but…
My father is Chinese and I use a toothpick the way I learned it from him – which makes my Thai wife furious. Go figure.
Another great post. I loved your description of the man seasoning his noodles. And as always I learn new words and am reminded of the ones I already know.
The Chinese cover their mouths too when they use a toothpick. That’s who I learned it from 😉