An Ethnoscientific Study of Cooking Terms in Thai

Amara Prasithrathsint

Southeast Asian Studies Program, Chulalongkorn University



Cooking terms are defined here as words denoting methods of making food suitable for eating by applying heat or some other agent. A review of related literature reveals a large number of publications in the form of cookbooks and a smaller number of scientific studies on such topics as nutrition, chemical components of food, and the effects of methods of cooking on health. Such practical information and scientific investigation on cooking is useful to human beings. However, there is another kind of cooking studies that is equally important but frequently neglected; that is, studies on how cooking is related to culture.  Previous studies on such a topic are scarcely found. Nevertheless, a study by Goody (1982) on “Cooking, cuisine and class: A study in comparative sociology” is a good example of the rare studies. He relates the differences in food preparation and consumption emerging in various societies in the world to differences in their socio-economic structures, specifically in modes of production and communication. Based on an examination of the worldwide rise of industrial food and its impact on Third World societies, he concludes that the ability to resist cultural domination in food is related to the nature of their pre-existing socio-economic structures. Goody’s study implies that industrial food may change the food identity of an ethnic group. A basic question arising from this implication, which concerns the present study, is: how can one arrive at knowledge of the food identity of a society?


Thus, this study aims at researching Thai indigenous knowledge concerning ways of cooking as reflected in Thai cooking terms. To achieve that aim, the ethnoscientific approach is adopted, the purpose of which is to investigate scientifically how local people classify different things in their daily lives. Since concepts of these things are represented by words or terms in the local language, the ethnoscientific aims to analyze the terminology representing the things in order to uncover the normally hidden local wisdom.


The methods of componential analysis and folk taxonomy are used for the analysis of the semantic relations of 60 Thai verbs of cooking collected from ten purposefully selected traditional Thai cookbooks. The terms are identified as verbs only if they can occur in the blank in the following test frame; e.g., tom ‘to boil,’ phat ‘to stir fry,’ ping ‘to grill,’ etc.
 Mae              kay  /khaaw/ khay /phak,        etc.          hay       luuk     kin
 Mother     chicken/  rice  /  egg  /vegetable, etc.          give      child     eat
‘Mother … chicken/  rice  /  egg  /vegetable, or other foodstuffs for her child to eat.’
The results showed that cooking terms are divided into two sets: 22 generic and 38 specific cooking terms representing the Thai basic system of cooking methods and varieties of these methods. The 22 generic cooking terms are distinguished from one another by positive, negative, and distinctive features in these nine dimensions of contrast: use of heat, cooking utensils, use of fat, dry cooking, cooking time, wrapping foodstuffs, end products, spice added, and stirring to mix. The 38 specific cooking terms are distinctively marked by taste, color, indispensable ingredients, ethnic origin, and noticeable characteristics.


The findings of this study imply discrepancy between scientific knowledge and folk or indigenous knowledge. The former represents etic worldview related to universal culture and the latter represents emic worldview related to local culture. Moreover, the study also shows that a particular language reflects the worldview of its speakers.


(Presented in the International Conference – Thai Food Heritage: Local to Global, 4-6 August 2009, Tawana Bangkok Hotel, Bangkok, organized by The Project of Empowering Network for International Thai Studies (ENITS), Institute of Thai Studies, Chulalongkorn University with support from the Thailand Research Fund (TRF))