Disharmony in dinnerware sign of a close community

The hodgepodge of serving dishes at provincial temple reflects donations by locals and reflects an enduring bond

When a merit-making ceremony is held at a provincial temple and it is the type where meals are served, it will usually take place on the pavilion called the sala kanprien, an all-purpose structure. People will eat seated on the floor in groups of four or five, enjoying dishes arranged on trays.

DISUNITED PLATES: The plates and bowls used in provincial households and restaurants still show a wide variety of shapes and designs.

It's obvious from their mixed designs that the dishes and bowls used do not come from a single set. Some will have fluted rims while others are flattened and the floral designs and patterns on them will not match. Some might come with their own serving spoons or ladles while others do not.

Why are there so many different kinds of plates and bowls? The modern way of thinking is that they should all be of the same kind because then they will be easier to sort and store. But among the disharmony of the settings can be found a charming aspect of Thai culture.

It is traditional in Thailand that the members of a community are closely involved with the temple and are always ready to help with its activities. There are many ways they can do so. They may assist with construction, help with cleaning and maintenance, and _ just as important _ help find utensils and other articles like plates, bowls, cups, glasses and pitchers for the monks to use daily, as well as cooking equipment for preparing food for special occasions.

BOWLED OVER: A food tray and bowls used in a temple for a merit-making ceremony.

Usually, when an important ceremony like Thawt Krathin (the annual presentation of new robes to the monks) or an ordination is held, a temporary kitchen will be set up near the sala kanprien.

Local housewives volunteer to prepare the food using equipment that belongs to the temple. It might include pots, woks, knives, cutting boards, plates and bowls of various sizes.

When the food is ready, some of it will first be presented to the monks, and then the guests will be fed.

For smaller events, like the beginning and end of Buddhist Lent or Songkran, people will bring food to give to the monks. When everyone has arrived at the pavilion the food will be placed in a traditional Thai arrangement of bowls and plates called a samrap for presentation to the monks and, when they have finished, the rest of the food will be offered to all.

The settings and equipment used will all be from the temple.

Sometimes when a particular household invites guests for a big event such as a wedding, a housewarming or a funeral, they will even borrow the needed equipment and utensils from the temple and return them afterwards.

One form of merit-making involves the presentation of these items to the temple. Each household makes an offering of some kind, depending on their preference and budget. Sometimes when a family borrows equipment from the temple for a ceremony held at their home they will buy additional items to give together with the ones they are returning.

As a result, the styles and sizes of the plates, bowls and other dishes and utensils at a temple will differ widely.

This variety reflects a traditional way of thinking that sees the items as essential to their way of life. They are used not only by the temple but by the local community itself.

The situation is similar in many private homes, with their unmatched settings of plates and serving bowls. Thais are economical by nature, and although all of the dishes may be the same when they are new, with time some of them will break and have to be replaced with new ones of a different design while the old ones are not discarded. Then there is the fact that in rural markets and shops dishes are given away with certain purchases like detergents or condensed milk. They will likely be printed with the company logo since they are handed out by companies that make products

This kind of variety in table settings is even more apparent in provincial restaurants. Since they buy products frequently and in quantity, they receive all kinds of handouts, so it is not unusual when dining at an upcountry restaurant to find the food being served on a whole array of fancy dishes, none of which match.

There is another item found in both temples and private homes that goes together with these plates and dishes _ a kind of wooden rack or table with slats between which the tableware can be can be inserted. It can hold many of them and allows them to dry quickly. It is usually set out in the sun. In some households it does not take the form of a table or rack, but of a shelf that extends out from the kitchen window and is supported by a pole.

Today the tableware used in temples and private households remains as much of a mix as it ever was. And the greater the variety of dishes, bowls and glasses that appear on the table, the clearer the evidence that there are endearing aspects of Thai culture that do not change.

About the author

Writer: Suthon Sukphisit
Position: Writer