6 Ways To Tackle Your Thai Food Neophobia

How do you travel to a foreign place, and not eat the food?

There I stood at a food stall in Bangkok’s popular W District located near BTS Phra Khanong.

Hot and dredged in sweat, I was in need of a cold beer. My mouth opened wide, but not to indulge curiosities and taste the flavors that were all around (and yes, I was hungry!).

Instead, I was halted, shocked that my friend, visiting from the US, approached the chef and did the unthinkable.

Acting as if she was going to simply greet him, she got closer.

He smiled happily and extended his hand out towards her for a shake; but then… she swiftly squeezed a drop of hand sanitizer onto his opened palm and gestured for him to rub them together.

I was beyond embarrassed and then it got worse; going beyond her just being a germaphobe.

A long way from Center City Philadelphia, my friend whispered in front of the already insulted chef, “I ain’t eatin that! There’s a McD’s near your condo, right?”

As if that’s the better option? What’s better than freshly made authentic cuisine? I was baffled by my lack of understanding of how one would travel, and not experience the food? Such delicious food.

Let’s face it. Dealing with a “Picky Eater” can be a pain in the butt!

However, Food Neophobia, or anything containing “phobia” denotes fear. Therefore (in my opinion) it requires a touch of patience and care.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that food in Thailand can possess a certain fear factor for expats. But we’re not discussing eating roasted bugs or blood soup.

Thanks Bourdain! You’ve scared the masses.

A “Food Neophobe” by definition is one that is afraid to eat anything new; an inability that would prove detrimental to any vacation.

I needed an explanation. I began researching the facts and understanding the differences.

“Picky Eating” is selective. A practice of those living with strict ideals about diet and their food preferences. However, the sad fact about those dealing with Food Neophobia comes from a number of debilitating reasons.

  • Disgust
  • Dissatisfaction of the senses
  • Fear of physical danger: “Bangkok Belly” and such.

Here are my 6 suggestions for those travelling and dealing with Food Neophobia:

1. Dim Some

Find a place that has low lighting. Bangkok has a number of seductive and softly lit restaurants. Don’t be afraid to ask. Approach a hostess or manager, and ask if it is possible to be seated in a less illuminated section or if it is possible to dim the lights a bit.

Warm and low lighting proves complimentary in calming the angst of foreign dining.

Dining in the dark also limits the plate inspection while dining on your Dim Sum.

2. Follow the herd

food neophobia

By Charles Haynes (Creative Commons)

Patrol the markets or various eateries. Observe the locals and check for the packed places with lengthy lines. Long lines are a great indication of popularity. People have no problem waiting for guaranteed goodness!

And, if everyone else is waiting… then it must be good! Safe too!  

Understand that something keeps them coming back for more, so have an adventure and find out what it is.

3. Suck it up!

Take the noodle approach to your eating.

It is known throughout Thailand that the spoon is the most essential utensil when eating. As a Westerner, I found it a difficult task to scoop noodles with a spoon instead of using a fork; it took skill. Such skill is to quickly dig in and suck it up.

When presented with a meal, just go for it. Don’t be consumed with thought of what you’re consuming. Just eat it, and keep a water chaser nearby!

food neophobia

By Sam Sherratt (Creative Commons)

4. Watch and learn

Watch the chefs prepare the meals.

With street vendors being the primary providers of meals, they are front and center. Watch them; not just to learn of their hygienic practices but witness the care that is put into making your food. You can be vocal in the preparation.

Being a chef, I do not hesitate to scan the produce; I even pick my own prawns from their offered selection.

Additionally, not being able to take the heat of the various peppers, I am always waving to the chef stating, “No Spicy” during meal prep.

5. Bring your own food

Visit your local grocery store before hanging out with friends or going out for dinner: you will be able to comfortably saunter about the aisles to procure your desired food (just make certain that it can withstand the city heat).

The French make sandwiches to keep in their bags, and Bangkok has baguettes.

It would really make for an easier night without the nuisance of your dissecting a menu.

6. Stay at home.

There are worse things to be afraid of.


Featured image is by Dietrich Ayala and is used under a Creative Commons licence