April 13, 2007

Eat, shop & tour at Jim's

Coming in out of the chaotic streets of Bangkok, I was struck by the serene and understated surroundings at the Jim Thompson House. For all its intents and purposes, it was an oasis in the middle of an urban jungle and walking past the driveway was like stepping into another world at another time. Before us was a group of majestic teak houses surrounded by lush greenery, stunning orchids and lily ponds that gave it a calming Zen-like quality.

Jim Thompson was an American architect who served in Thailand during WWII. He is the man responsible for the popularity of Thai silk worldwide, the man who saved it from the threat of extinction. But while on a trip to Malaysia in 1967, he went out for a stroll never to be seen again. This mysterious disappearance fuelled various theories, with one about him being a victim of a hit-and-run car accident, and the other which surmises that he was eaten by a tiger or lion in the jungles of Malaysia. Still another, more exciting, theory is that he was murdered or captured by spies.

a spirit house at Jim's
What we do know for sure is that he left behind a legacy and this house still preserves the spirit and legend of the man. There are six houses in all, assembled and built from older structures found near the old capital of Ayuthaya and around Northern Thailand. It is interesting to note at this point that traditional Thai houses such as this one are built without the use of nails, just wooden pegs, making it easy to take them down and reassemble them elsewhere.

He joined the various rooms that fronted the klong (canal) with a terrace. We removed our shoes and deposited our bags (no pictures allowed inside the house) and followed an English speaking guide up a teak staircase. Everywhere you looked were antiques and treasures from the East and West: a crystal chandelier hung from the drawing room, there were rare Chinese porcelain pieces, an extensive art collection, Burmese images stood in niches that were once windows, colorful silk cushions strewn about. In his library and bedroom remained some of Jim's personal possessions and artefacts, left behind as if still waiting for their master to come home and use them once again.

He loved to entertain and one can only imagine the extraordinary characters that walked through those black and white tiled floors at the entrance. As we walked through the house, I felt a slight sadness and silently wished he were still alive. He would have been an interesting fellow to meet!

The other parts of the house have since been turned into a restaurant, a gift shop and a bookstore. This restaurant (photo at left) is where we had our first taste of authentic Thai food, and what a delightful experience that was!

Unlike the rest of the house, the restaurant was trendy and hip, done in subdued shades of beige with colorful silk throw pillows for accents. We were so famished and excited to eat, that we all at once rattled off menu items at the confused waitress. " Two of everything!"

You won't find salt and pepper shakers on a traditional Thai table. Instead, in typical Thai fashion, you will find something like this silver tray holding the four basic Thai condiments: náam som phrik or sliced chilies, náam plaa or fish sauce, náamtaan or plain white sugar and phrik pon or dried red chili flakes. This allows the diners to make their food, sour, salty, sweet, hot and salty, hot and sour, sweet and salty, sweet and sour, hot and sweet, or just plain hotter!

For starters we ordered crab cakes with mango sauce, the yam som oo or pomelo salad and the som tam which is a spicy papaya salad with shrimp. Don't let the refreshing looks of the som tam fool you, it's loaded with chilies! A yam is a hot and tangy salad that usually involves the flavors of lime, chili, fresh herbs and a choice of seafood, meat, roast vegetables or noodles. Lemongrass, shallots and kaffir lime leaves may also come into play. If appetizers are the front-act to the main show and what we just had was any indication of the feast we were about indulge in, boy were we in for a wild and heady culinary ride!

l to r: crab cakes with mango sauce, pomelo salad, spicy papaya salad

Next up of course was the tom yam kung which is a soup-style yam. The intoxicating aroma of kaffir lime and lemongrass that rose from the bowl was enough to send my mind reeling. We ladled the soup into our individual bowls and we slurped. We didn't care that we were teary-eyed and sniffling - some even suppressing a cough or two-, with prickles of sweat forming at our temples, we couldn't get enough of it! It was that good. It was an intense and unforgiving soup, but oh so rewarding!
tom yam kung

If you see kuaytiaw on a Thai menu, that refers to the rice noodles commonly found in dishes like kuaytiaw phàt thai or phàt thai for short. The phat thai served to us at Jim Thompson's came ensconced in a thin egg blanket. Hidden underneath was a melange of thin rice noodles stirfried with shrimp, beansprouts, green onions, tofu, egg, and crushed peanuts. In my experience, phàt thais are hit or miss. I don't know what makes it pretty easy to screw up what seems like such a simple dish, but this one was definitely a big hit!

kuaytiaw phàt thai

As if the tom yam kung wasn't enough, we had to have the Green Curry with Eggplant and Chicken or kaeng khiaw-waan. Now, woah! Hot doesn't even begin to describe this dish. You know how you can't pull yourself away from a car wreck? Yup, something like that. All it took was more rice and alternating bites of the sweet and tangy pomelo salad. I wondered briefly if I would ever regain full use of my tongue. But the temporary discomfort is really such a small price to pay for such an ambrosial dish, don't you think?

Green curry with eggplant and chicken

Chinese influence on Thai food would be most evident in their stir-fries, the difference lies in it's seasoning. Instead of soy sauce, a staple in Chinese cuisine, Thai stir-fries or phàt come with phrik nàam plaa on the side - a concoction of red and green chilies in fish sauce. Because cashews are native to Thailand, stir-fries that incorporate them are common and popular especially among the foreigners such as this one we had pictured below. I loved this dish too, the chicken was crispy and all the ingredients married well into a perfect balance of sweet, nutty and salty.

Ahhh, the pièce de résistance. These could possibly be the two most delicious mango desserts this side of the hemisphere. They were the perfect sweet ending, kind of like a soft, velvety cushion for our tongues and palates. Refreshing and so so comforting. Khao niaw ma-muang , that's the tongue-twisting name for what is fresh ripe mangoes served with sticky rice sweetened in coconut milk. Ma-muang, that's the Thai name for my most favorite fruit in the world. We also had some ma-muang with sago (or tapioca pearls) in sweet coconut milk. They were delicious and I'm craving for them now as I type this.

After lunch, we continued to explore the grounds, spending a considerable amount of time inside the gift shop. My friends bought pretty silk fabrics and scarves with delicate patterns. I, on the other hand, bought At The Table of Jim Thompson, a cookbook with recipes by the chefs of the Jim Thompson restaurants. I've already bookmarked the recipes I want to try, about 5 of them for starters. Hopefully I do it justice. :)

The Jim Thompson House Gift Shop

Jim Thompson House & Museum
6 Soi Kasemsan 2, Rama 1 Rd., Bangkok
Tel. 216-7368
Open daily from 9 am , last tour begins at 4:30 pm


Anonymous said...

The food looks fantastic! Do you know I just found out about him 2 or 3 christmases ago? My aunt gave me a bag from his store, then another aunt talked about his recipes...Now I must go see it for myself! :) His story is like a movie with the mysterious disappearance and all!

32 flavors said...

nens, you give me another reason to go back to bangkok. the closest i've come to experiencing jim thompson is buying items in his store at the emporium. and the lamps by the bar! are they for sale too? they're exquisite. -the other katrina. heehee.

wysgal said...

I'm enamored with all things Jim Thompson! I love shopping in his stores, visiting his house, eating in the resto in his house ... I bought that same book a few years ago but haven't been able to use it yet. =)

Anonymous said...

Jim Thompson's disappearance is very Agatha Christie-like!

Sounds like I have to prepare myself for not just the heat of Bangkok, but the heat of the food too. I do like spicy food, but definitely not on the same fiery level as what they have. Gotta work out my palate!

Hi Katrina! (I'm the bald one ;-))

christine said...

Jo, you must! The cookbook has an introduction that tells the story of the many parties he used to host at this house, making it the "celebrated social center" during those times. Very interesting. He was solely responsible for introducing Thai silk to major fashion houses in Europe too. A movie about his life would be a good idea!

The other katrina: hello! :) No, the lamps weren't for sale heehee. They're beautiful no? Lamps like those are the first things I plan to purchase if and when I get to Morocco! I know someone who sells similar items here in Manila, she has a showroom in Dasma. I'll send you her number.

Wysgal, me too! I was totally enchanted by him and everything about him. Did you not love walking around his house? And that little duck "potty" he had in his room because of the lack of indoor plumbing, and the two mother-of-pearl encrusted mahjong tables he put together to form a dining table (since Thais normally eat on the floor)?

The bald Katrina (you're too funny): Yup, the food was hot! I love hot food, but I didn't have anything unbearably hot naman. The cold salads help tame the heat, and those nice Thai iced teas come in handy too!

Anonymous said...

thailand is a food trip and backpacking paradise aside from shopping (the friends' favorite sport)

love the food shots!

Anonymous said...

Thai food is aroy aroy !

christine said...

Hi Tutubi! Yes it is quite the backpackers paradise. I did see quite a few of those who wear their luggage. ;) And definitely quite the food trip!

Thai news, I am assuming that means yummy-yummy!? :)

Anonymous said...

it has been 3 years since we've been there and i think we need to go back there once again! there's sooo little time when you want sooo many things to do there! shopping, shopping (for rache), eat, eat and eat (for me and rache) and dont forget the never ending foot massage!!! Did you have one for yourself?

christine said...

Anton, I did even better, I had a full body massage! Oh my gosh! I treat myself to a home massage about once a month and I've been to my share of spas as well, but NOTHING comes close to the Thai massage I had in Bangkok!! Absolutely incredible, almost sinful. I felt brand new, seriously. When you go back, I'll give you the address of the place we went to.

grumpyurbanslacker said...

hey gypsy,

re Jim T., after visiting his house a few years ago, i bought this book "Jim Thompson: The Unsolved Mystery" by William Warren (supposed to be a former close associate of his) at Asia Books, and it was quite gripping. Alas, he couldn't say for sure what really happened to JT, but he did say JT wasn't a spy ala James Bond.

i'll make sure to visit the house again next time i'm in BKK, and eat at the resto this time. :D

question though, i thought it was at surawongg road??

christine said...

Hi GUS! I think I want that book, I'm so intrigued by his life, AND his death. I'll add that to my wishlist.

There are many Jim Thompson sales outlets around Bangkok, (about 16) and you are right, the main store IS in Surawong, but that's not the one I went to.

There are 3 Jim Thompson restaurants, 1 at the Surawong main store called Cafe 9 (in fact we walked into that one as we were looking for somewhere to eat along Surawong when we found out Anna's Cafe had closed down but didn't eat there cos we wanted to try something diff.) then there's Saladaeng Cafe which is on Saladaeng Soi. I went to the third one called the Jim Thompson Bar & Restaurant at his house/museum. :)