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The wide range of Thai fruitThe Thais take pride in their cuisine, which offers excellent value for money. Dining out is a delight, especially if you like pungent and spicy dishes enlivened with garlic and chillies. Just about everything in Thai cuisine is different from your own home cooking. 

The Thai love affair with food is evident in the growing number of food establishments on every street corner and waterway throughout the country. 

Thai food is normally prepared with fresh ingredients and includes fish, poultry, pork and some beef, with rice as the foundation. When you try the spicy dishes, take a tip from the Thais and eat plenty of long-grained steamed rice to cool you down.

Among the hundreds of dishes to investigate are a seafood curry with vegetables and coconut milk, served in a 'basket' of banana leaves (don't eat the leaves!); prawn soup seasoned with lime juice and red pepper; 'paw pia tod' a feather- light pancake enclosing sweet and sour crabmeat, bean sprouts and pork; and 'gai hor bei toey' morsels of chicken fried with sesame oil, soya and oyster sauce.

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if you want to follow Thai table etiquette, eat food with a tablespoon in the right hand. Use a fork only to push food onto the spoon, but not into the mouth. 

Chopsticks are used for noodles. Sticky rice, popular in the north, is rolled into a ball and eaten with right hand only - never the left hand.

Dinner, the main meal, consists of at least three communal dishes with rice. Dishes are not courses but are served all at the same time. One should take a mouthful of this and that in whatever order one prefers.

On social meal occasions, always leave something on the dishes and your plate. Otherwise your host will feel insulted that he has not been generous enough.

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Different Thai regions have distinctive cuisines, but they all share the hot-spice characteristic. A typical curry is made with peppers, fresh herbs and shrimp paste, pounded together in an old-fashioned mortar and pestle, blended with sweet coconut milk and served with rice.

A note from the Thai Cooking School at The Oriental Hotel in Bangkok says: "Thai food is known to be chilli hot, but traditional Thai dishes must not be predominantly hot. There must always be a harmony in a dish. 

Fish is always in polentiful supply from the Gulf of Thailand"The sharpness of the chillies and the spices in a curry dish is toned down by the sweetness of the coconut cream which also enhances the flavours and tastes of other delicate ingredients and herbs."

However, if it feels as though your tongue has blistered, and the enamel has been scaled off your teeth, eat more rice, quickly. But restaurants that cater for western visitors usually go easy with the peppers and chillies, and add more coconut milk.

Many of the dishes have no easy translation. In the more unpretentious restaurants there's often good fun from reading menus which make valiant attempts to explain Thai dishes in tasty English. 

Here's an assortment from just one ambitious menu in Chiang Mai: fried shrimp chips; fried fish stomach; fried pigmy frogs; pickled ginger; Chinese sausage; eggs soaked in quicklime; fried frogs with garlic and pepper; half-boiled cockles; apache fried brittle (dried frogskin, fried brittle); fried partridge eggs with bamboo shoots; fried chicken giblets with ginger; dainty bits soup; eggs, sunnyside up.

Why not start your own collection of tasty quotes?

A well-presented Thai dessertIf these delights do not appeal, western food is widely available in hotels, and there are numerous fast-food chains in the cities and resorts. Another alternative is to seek out the more familiar cuisine of a Chinese restaurant; or - not so easy to find - Indian.

Vegetarians can have a hard time in Thai restaurants, finding what's best to accompany the rice. Ask a hotel concierge to write out a sentence or two that explains your veggie requirements. 

The most economical eating places are noodle shops and night markets. Snack bars offer little plastic bags of sliced fruit; or sticky rice cooked in bamboo stalks with coconut milk; dried squid, fried chicken, noodles; hard boiled eggs, peanuts, shredded salad; and a variety of sugary sweets. 

Fruit juices and beverages

In local markets, fruits are piled high pineapple, banana, oranges, water melons, papaya, mango and exotic tropical fruits which may be hard to identify. Many are converted into juices and shakes, usually with added salt unless you stop the vendor in time.

In Thai and Chinese restaurants, weak lukewarm tea is poured from metal teapots during the meal, usually at no charge. An order of hot tea or filtered coffee normally comes sugared and with condensed milk. Instant coffee is served with packet creamer.

Among the alcoholic drinks, try Singha beer, or Kloster which costs a little more. Larger bottles are the better value. The local alcohol is the rice-based Mekong 'whisky', which is less potent than the real thing. Try it with soda water and a squeeze of fresh lime. Other brand names are Hong and Kwang thong.

Imported wine is expensive. A bottle often costs more than the meal itself. Likewise, well known western branded drinks can be expensive if imported instead of being locally produced under licence.

Sculpting vegetables for table decortionFRUIT SCULPING is a popular home art for decoration and dining. The craft tradition started  with the sculping of plantain, the green tropical bananas which are used as a vegetable. These sculpings were used in religious rituals and even were used in decoration of funeral pyres.

From these origins, the tradition passed to the sculping of other easily-worked materials, including pumpkins, papayas and potatoes. The craft became popular as "The Craft of Perishables". 

It can be a group activity, done in a family or community setting. Cucumber, water-melon, egg-plants and marrow are typical materials used. They are used for village festival decoration, and even at formal city dinner parties. Often one can see fruit and vegetable vendors sitting at their stall, carving decorative shapes while waiting for customers.

Check out these other Thailand features:

BANGKOK - Visit the capital "City of Angels'

CHIANG MAI - North to "Rose of the North"                                            

PHUKET - Holiday pearl  of the South

THAI ENTERTAINMENT  - Sample the night-time scene

SHOPPING IN THAILAND - The enjoyable search for good quality trditional handicrafts

TRIPS OUT OF BANGKOK - Looking at the rich variety of excursion possibilities from the capital.

"Books to read - click on cover pictures" or click on the links below

"Ken Hom Cooks Thai" by Ken Hom - If you want to recapture the taste of Thai cuisine back home, here is excellent guidance to 130 recipes.

Thai Food - A stunning collection of around 300 recipes, by an author who regards the Thai cuisine as the world's greatest. The work is complemented by masterly photography. 

Vatch's Thai Cookbook: With 150 Recipes and a Guide to Essential Ingredients (Great Cooks S.)  - an evocative journey through the main regions of Thailand, in search of the individual sauces, herbs and spices which make up the rich taste of the world's favourite 'exotic' cuisine.

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