A friend pointed out that the only food I've written about so far is McDonalds - kind of a shame when you consider that I'm in Thailand. The main reason I haven't written about food yet is because I've been very cautious. At this point I've expanded my horizons enough that I think I can start to write about it. A lot of farang do the "point-to-order" thing and I've certainly done that a couple times, but I like to know what I'm ordering so I can either avoid it in future or order it again if I really like it.
Thais eat with a fork and spoon - the fork is used to help load the spoon, and you eat off the spoon. The spoon is usually held in the right hand, but I don't think the Thais care - unlike India, where it's very important to eat only with the right hand. Chopsticks are appropriate if you're eating Chinese food, not Thai food - although I haven't always known which I'm eating. Portions are generally half the size of what you'd get in the U.S. or Canada - enough to keep you going without gaining weight, I've been very happy with it.
Most dishes are based on either rice or noodles. I've eaten at a lot of chain restaurants as they offer consistency and reliability (I make those assumptions, let me have them), but many of them make really good food at very reasonable prices. My lunch today was "Chicken and Galangal in Coconut Soup," which was a truly sinus-clearing experience. Utterly delicious though. Both of these things have characterized my Thai eating experience - very spicy and marvelous. Since I ate at "Black Canyon Coffee," I also had a "Kopi Ancient Coffee," which the english explanation claims is an old Chinese interpretation of coffee: basically an expresso and condensed milk. I like my coffee sweet, so that suited me fine. Total price for a delicious meal? Just under $3US. Yesterday's lunch at the Chulalongkorn University cafeteria (where they have multiple vendors surrounding an open air seating area) cost me about $0.50US for a substantial meal with two point-and-eat mains on rice. Sometimes you'll find yourself pushing aside the inedible bits that are in there as flavouring: kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, chunks of galangal, big bunches of fresh green pepper corns still on the stem, and maybe the red peppers depending on how hot you want it.
Depending on what you're eating, you may get the tray of condiments. These generally seem to be 1) flaked red pepper, 2) vinegar flavoured with hot pepper, 3) plain sugar, and 4) fish sauce with hot pepper. Most Thais and Vietnamese reach first for the fish sauce, but most farang's first encounters with the stuff involved wrinkled noses and revulsion. It's an acquired taste. As I'm planning on visiting Vietnam, I'm really trying to adjust to the stuff. It's used as we use salt, or as the Chinese use soy sauce.
Desserts (take this with a grain of salt as I haven't had many) are often very sweet, and flavours tend to perfume. They can also include red beans (I think they're what we call kidney beans). On the other hand, my favourite so far was "Sesame Balls in Ginger Tea," which was also very sweet, but had several balls - a thin layer of dough around black sesame seeds - floating in a hot ginger syrup. That was really good.
There are many western chains here, including Dunkin Donuts and McDonalds, but nothing has caught on like 7-Eleven, which you'll see pretty much every single block. I visit them frequently: a 1.5 liter bottle of water is 13 baht (about 33 cents US), and I buy a couple a day. I gave up on the smaller sizes two days after I arrived since I have to drink about four liters of water a day to stay hydrated. 7-Eleven has also been an education in Thai junk food. Frito-Lay has a strong presence, and, like McDonalds, they've adapted to survive. The most interesting flavours they offer in potato chips are "Grilled Lobster" (tasted like mediocre fish to me) and "Nori Seaweed" (which I haven't tried because I don't think I'd like it), as well as the more western flavours. Also very common are flavoured yogurt drinks, flavoured milk ("orange flavoured milk" remains a disturbing concept to me, although I'm unbothered by the "orange flavoured yogurt drink" next to it, go figure), soy milks, and what I think are energy drinks (although the labels are entirely in Thai so I'm not sure).
Dunkin Donuts makes a sort of string-of-beads looking donut called a "Mochi Ring" that I tried. "Mochi" would seem to indicate it may be made with glutinous rice flour! That would certainly explain the remarkable chewiness. It was good.
I haven't tried the street vendors yet. Many tourists eat from street vendors frequently and suffer no ill effects - they're everywhere and very cheap, often with tables set up right beside the cart they cook on. But they're less likely to speak english and you do have to be careful as there's some possibility that food has been sitting in tropical heat for several hours without refrigeration. I'll get to it eventually.
The food is great. Anyone want to join me?