April 24, 2007

Malatapay madness

Malatapay wednesday market

Oohh there it was, that familiar jagged coastline of Dumaguete. My heart did a little back flip. This is my favorite city in all of the country, my dad's hometown. Though discovering new places is thrilling, I cannot resist the lure of this place I have come to love as my second home.

From my window seat on the plane, I could see the long stretch of beach to my right where we spent many memorable Easter breaks. To the left was the runway we were heading for that jutted out into the water. That extended stretch of tarmac meant planes no longer had to screech to a stop within 2 seconds of touchdown. Now they can ease up a little and do it in 5. That extended stretch also meant we lost our little spot on the rocks at the edge of the original strip where we spent many nights stargazing and boozing up on rum cokes (the 'state drink').

It had been three years, but it may as well have been twenty. The airport was exactly the same. I walked on the blazing hot tarmac alongside the cart which held our luggage. There are no carousels here, just strong armed porters who take your claim tags and join the pack to rummage through the rising pile of bags on the floor.

At this point, as is always the case, the constant process of bumping into familiar faces in this small town begins. I counted three. It wasn’t officially Holy Week yet, after all. The throngs of people were not expected until the next day. My cousin was already outside, ready to whisk us off to our first order of the day, the Malatapay wednesday market. This was my special request and the reason I groggily stumbled out of bed at the ungodly hour of 5 am to catch the first flight.

I don’t remember precisely when I was at Malatapay last since it was so long ago, but I remember it well. Experiences like that are not so easily forgotten. Often when you revisit a place from your childhood, you are startled by how much smaller it seems to have become. Not this time.

Malatapay is located about 20 minutes south of Dumaguete in the town of Zamboanguita. On a regular day it is a relatively quiet patch of coconut trees and huts and a beach that serves as the jump off point for Apo Island. It is in the middle of the week when it springs to life, and like a sleeping giant whose slumber is disturbed, it awakens with a roar and rages on all day.

Apo island from Malatapay

Apo Island in the distance

You can’t miss the junction of Malatapay. The first sign are the long lines of trucks and side cars parked carelessly on both sides of the highway. More trucks being loaded with cattle and then we arrive at the entrance to Malatapay. Locals, tourists, animals, pedicabs spill out from the now cemented path that leads through the market and down to the beach. My cousin slowly steers the car into this sea of chaos, careful not to harm any stray goats or pigs in the process, and immediately we are in the thick of it. I stare through the window in disbelief. When did it get so big?

animals auctioned  off

No place for an animal lover like me

We finally get to the makeshift parking area where we parked under the shade of coconut trees and next to a man napping on the roof of his jeep which had a sullen looking cow tied to it’s rear. I walked over to a colorful display of native bags, hats and slippers and notice that here the crowd has thinned slightly. My ears pick up loud noises. I follow the noise with my eyes beyond the hanging abaca bags to a coconut grove where, apparently, the livestock auction is taking place. I see a large group of ranchers who appear to be shouting at once, standing amidst cows, pigs, goats and, is that a horse I see?

Malatapay collage

I bought the bulad (dried fish) on the bottom right picture for bacalao
You see that bread on the upper right?
That's tuba bread made with tuba (alcoholic drink from coconuts),
it's very dense, sweet and so so good !

We retrace our steps back down the path we came from this time on foot, eyeing the items proudly displayed for sale (or barter). People from neighboring towns, from villages up in the mountains and even from nearby islands bring their products here so there is a wide variety of items. Aside from the usual fare of fresh fish and meats, you there are also grains and feeds, dried fish, dried tobacco leaves, knives, ropes, mats, live chickens, produce, kitchenware, native handicrafts, farming implements, fishing implements, bread, shoes, and clothes. Somehow I was surprised, and yet not really, to see pirated DVD’s for sale, complete with a 14 inch TV for testing.


"Kitchen and dining"

The further down we went and nearer to the highway, the tighter it got and we found ourselves tiptoeing over stuff laid out on mats just to save our hiney from being run down by a truck or headbutted by a furious goat. Along the way, we shop for our lunch then head back towards the water to the shaded “dining area” where my cousin’s husband (incidentally, my source for the kinilaw recipe) has reserved us a table. He brings out his “sushi kit” and ceremoniously unzips it revealing the contents. From within he pulls out metal chopsticks which he distributes, cute little fish-shaped dishes, a bottle of pickled ginger, soy sauce, some calamansi (native citrus) and a tube of wasabi. This is so like him! He has the man there slice up some tuna for sashimi and instructs him on how to clean it.

fresh tuna sashimi

I see a lechon (roast pig) with skin that glistened in the sun, I could almost hear the skin crackling. I couldn't resist so I go buy some for our group of ten. We hand over our clams and fish to the manang for cooking and order some liempo (more pork!). These are brought over with mounds of rice and some beers. I sink my toes into the sand and my teeth into one of the most delightful meals I’ve had in a long time. Ahhhh...the island life! :)


Clams on the grill



Cute local

Cute local who was sitting at the next table
I loved her pose and couldn't resist taking a picture. :)

You can read my previous post about Dumaguete here.

April 23, 2007

Catalina Taco Salad

Catalina taco salad

During a recent dinner at La Nuova Pastelleria in Alabang, I was reminiscing with the owner about my old favorites from their original cafe in Makati. His younger brother was a friend and we went to the same school nearby, just a short walk from where his mother served some of the yummiest cakes from old family recipes - they have the best Concorde cake! Sometimes after the final bell, my best friend and I would mosey on over to Pastelleria, as it was fondly called back then, still sporting our Catholic school girl uniforms and share a big plate of taco salad and a slice of cake.

Somewhere down the line, the cafe evolved into an Italian trattoria and with this change came a shiny new menu featuring dreamy dishes that conjured up images of cozy rustic kitchens on Tuscan hillsides. Naturally there was no room for something so un-Italian and mundane as the poor taco salad. And while I do have my new favorites, I did miss it.

It was that same salad that inspired my habit of crushing my loaded taco shells into a crunchy salad. I liked it when the sauces were evenly spread. Even the Pancake House tacos would suffer the same fate. My mom prepared tacos at home sometimes for variety. She would so carefully layer each ingredient, making sure the shredded lettuce goes in first so it absorbs the juices from the meat and tomatoes that were piled on top of it. No sooner would she hand me mine and I'd come down on it with my fork crush...crush...stir. Oh, but don't get me wrong, I still enjoy the pleasure of eating tacos with my hands and letting the sauce spill down my forearm to my elbows, squirting more hot sauce before every bite.

I started to prepare my own taco salad after a friend introduced me to Kraft's Catalina salad dressing. It propelled the salad into a new dimension, resulting in one of the best taco salads I had ever tried, coming thisclose to that of Pastelleria. It was truly a eureka moment! The Catalina lends a nice sweet, tangy flavor that tempers the heat of the chili beans just right.

So after all that talk about taco salad the night before, I set about preparing a nice big bowl for Sunday lunch. Thankfully, I still had a bottle of Catalina that I brought home from a trip to the US last year and a couple of taco seasoning packets. I had also just been to the grocery so my fridge was freshly stacked with cheeses.

This is a meal in itself and can be very filling so I usually have it on it's own. But it's a salad ergo it's healthy and don't let anybody tell you otherwise. Just look at all the tomatoes and lettuce and protein-rich beans in it! ;)

Catalina Taco Salad

1/2 kg ground beef
1 packet of taco seasoning mix
1 head iceberg lettuce, shredded
2-3 tomatoes, sliced into wedges

2-3 onions, chopped
1 can chilli beans, drained
1/2 cap sliced olives, drained (optional)
1 bag corn chips, I like to use Cool Ranch Doritos
shredded cheddar cheese

Kraft's Catalina salad dressing
fresh chunky salsa
hot sauce, if the beans and salsa aren't hot enough

Now all you have to do is:

Brown beef in a skilet and then drain. Add taco seasoning and prepare according to package directions. Sometimes it will require you to add some water. Make sure to cool the meat before including it with the rest of the ingredients. Put everything in a large bag (some even use those medium sized garbage bags earning it the unappetizing nickname of Trash Bag Taco Salad) or plastic container and shake it like a polaroid picture!

Transfer the salad into a big bowl, pile on the salsa, dress with the Catalina and sprinkle generously with shredded cheese and voila! Too easy.

I still haven't found Catalina dressing here in Manila so I have to get mine in the US. But you can also make your own with this recipe.

April 22, 2007

Ayuthaya: a photo essay

The old capital city of Ayutthaya was founded by King Ramathibodi I in 1350 and was the seat of power until it's complete and total destruction by the Burmese army in 1767, which prompted the king to relocate his court to Bangkok. But at one time there were 3 royal palaces, 375 temples and 29 forts in Ayutthaya alone. The present site with it's khmer-style prangs, Thai chedis and decapitated or beheaded buddha images was declared a historical park and UNESCO World Heritage Site, and for good reason. The ruins still speak of the old city's splendor and I felt both humbled and thrilled before it.

Buddha head in the roots of an overgrown fig tree

Wat Phra Mahathat

Wat Phra Si Sanphet; the Royal Temple of the kingdom of Ayutthaya

The three main stupas contain the ashes of three kings. Important royal ceremonies occured here like swearing allegiance and it also served as the royal family's private chapel.

Wat Mongkhon Bophit which houses a 17 meter high bronze cast sitting buddha

At the Elephant Camp; isn't she just adorable?!

Our view from atop an elephant

My friend J who rode with me was so freaked out she didn't let go of my arm during the 15 minute ride around the park. I, on the other hand, was laughing at the way we were rocking back and forth, reminding us of the way our friend drives. This was super fun!

My heart skipped a beat when I saw this impressive reclining buddha at Wat Lokaya Sutharam.

At the bow of the Golden Pearl with Bangkok in the distance
We opted to return to Bangkok via a leisurely (air-conditioned!) cruise which included a buffet lunch. The 3 hour cruise gave us some much-needed downtime which we took advantage of by just chatting over coffee and tea, strolling on the deck, and taking power naps on the couch.

Chao Phraya River scenes
That's the Grand Palace on the bottom left picture

We treated ourselves to a traditional full body massage using ancient Thai techniques at the Health Land Spa (above). Those were two of the most blissful hours in my life. I came out of there feeling reborn, seriously! Undoubtedly the best massage I've ever had.And that's coming from someone who indulges in massages at least once a month. If you find yourself in Thailand, do yourself a favor and treat yourself to a traditional Thai massage. If you are squirmy about a strangers hands on your body (you don't disrobe for a Thai massage, by the way), then have a foot massage instead.

April 20, 2007

The Summer Palace

Aisawan Thiphya-At ; the only Thai style building on the estate
Our day trip to the Ayutthaya, the old capital of Thailand (Siam, then),was the highlight of my trip. It was either a day trip to Ayutthaya or to Kanchanaburi. And while crossing the historic Bridge over the River Kwai would have been interesting, it could not have been as beautiful and awe-inspiring as Ayutthaya turned out to be.

Let me first share what I learned to give you a bit of a background:
From the fourteenth to the eighteenth century, the kingdom of Ayutthaya was ruled by thirty three kings of different dynasties and eventually evolved as the strongest power in Southeast Asia. This magnificent city on the banks of the Chao Phraya River was a patchwork of palaces, canals and about 400 temples in contrasting Khmer and Sukhothai architecture. Today though, all that's left are the haunting ruins of that once-mighty empire.

I was beside myself with excitement. While everyone was trying to catch a few more zzz's in the minivan (we had quite the interesting time in Patpong the night before), my mind whirled with a kind of preview or 'trailer' of what we were about to see. A product of months of browsing the internet and reading the guide books in preparation for the trip. But before we even made it there, we had an unexpected stopover.

Bang Pa In

We arrived at Bang Pa In, or the Summer Palace, bright and early so we were the first ones there. This allowed us to explore the estate in relative peace, without a throng of tourists ahead of us marring the scenery. Though only 60 kms north of Bangkok it may as well have been a hundred thousand miles away in Europe,Versailles perhaps?

Bang Pa-In was constructed during the reign of King Prasat Thong (1629-1656) but the present-day royal palace and most of the buildings in the grounds were restored by King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) in the late nineteenth century. We hopped on golf carts and scooted around admiring the manicured lawns, elephant and rabbit topiaries, majestic mansions and neo-classical buildings all of which are surrounded by a large lake and interconnected by bridges.

We stopped before each building where the guide would proceed to do his job, eagerly regaling us with tales about the royalty and friends of royalty who strolled through the front doors. Most of the buildings, however, are off-limits to the public and those that aren't prohibit the use of cameras inside.

We continued across another bridge and our guide asked us to pull over next to a small lake with an orange-striped look-out tower in the middle. He led us away from the water and towards Wehart Chamrun. We stepped out of our flip-flops and into an opulent Chinese-style palace. The structure is supported by massive red pillars with beams intricately decorated in gold leaf. We padded up carpeted steps to an exterior hallway that wrapped around the palace, peering into the various chambers and marvelling at the lavish use of ebony, ivory, mother of pearl, gold, and porcelain for decorative purposes.
Sage's Lookout & Wehart Chamrun
The only other building we were allowed to enter was the Phra Thinang Warophat Phiman, the royal residence with the tongue twister for a name. When we hopped out of the cart, we were asked not to move while our guide went off towards the direction of the mansion. He came back with six bright silk sarongs, each of a different color and helped us wrap them around ourselves. I must say we looked quite spiffy as we walked up those marble steps!

Phra Thinang Warophat Phiman

Once again discarding our flip-flops, we stepped into a Victorian ante-room dominated by a large throne. Here we watched our guide drop to his knees and touch his forehead to the carpet a couple of times before he told us more stories. I drifted off into my own world as I gazed at the oil paintings which depicted significant events in Thai history. Within minutes, the room was crowded with hordes of other tourists and it was time to go. It was just as well, I needed another bottle of water to rehydrate myself. The heat had started to intensify at this point. Thank goodness our guide had rolled up stacks of iced towels waiting for us in the minivan. :)

Rapunzel! Rapunzel!

Bang Pa In is open daily from 8:30 am to 3:30 pm and admission is 50 Baht for adults.

April 17, 2007

Taken for a ride on a tuktuk

from inside the tuktuk

Ahh the Thais, they're quite the colorful characters. We met all sorts. Though I did not feel from them the genuine warmth that exuded from the Hanoi locals, they were mostly a nice enough bunch peppered with the occasional crude dude.

Such as the taxi driver who wouldn't take us up the driveway of our hotel, shooing us all off with both hands when we refused to budge. Adamant, I reminded him that we were paying him x amount of money (his was the only taxi we allowed ourselves to ride unmetered) so the least he could do was take us up to the lobby instead of leaving us at the curb. He responded to this with a loud demonic laugh "mwahahaha...EJECT!!!" as he jabbed at an invisible button on his dashboard. I stared at him incredulous from my position at shotgun. Is he doing what I think he's doing? His eyes then grew wide and he shouted with all the force he could muster "BOOM!!!", accompanying this imaginary explosion with his arms. Holymotherof! He is! The nerrrrve! :-O We were so shocked, we stormed out of his cab and for dramatic effect, I slammed the door. As we walked up the steep driveway, we burst into fits of uncontrollable laughter. We had been launched from a taxi!

While that turned out to be funny in retrospect, this one wasn't. We wanted to go to Somboon Seafood restaurant and we decided to take a tuktuk for the sake of the experience. Because there were six of us and only about 3 fit comfortable in each, we hailed 2 of them. I told the first driver where we wanted to go and even showed the Thai name of the restaurant and it's address. He knew the place, he said, but didn't we want to go to a nearer branch? I insisted on the one at Surawong because it was near Patpong which we planned to walk to after dinner. After arguing with him, he finally agreed to take us there. I climbed into the second tuktuk and told the driver to follow the first. Riding the tuktuk is actually really fun and it brought back memories of my pedicab riding days in Dumaguete.

About 5 minutes later, the first driver stops his tuktuk in the middle of the road and walks over to us, again insisting to take us to the nearer one. At this point, I am starting to get annoyed and I threaten to abandonthe tuktuks for a taxi if he doesn't take us where we want to go. He mumbles something incoherent and climbs back on his seat and we continue on. We arrive at the restaurant and before I could even step out of the tuktuk, a menu was shoved into my hands by a waiter. Okayyyy, a little too eager are we?

The guidebook described Somboon as a bright and modern restaurant and there was nothing modern about this one. The sign above read Somboondee. Grrrrrrrr. Ok it takes a lot to get me mad, but oooohhhh was I pissed off. They deliberately ignored our instructions and took us for fools by bringing us to this impostor of a place. Turns out, these drivers get a cut when they take unknowing tourists there. Madre mia.

fried crab with black pepper

There was an angry exchange of words between me and the waiter/manager and between me and the tuktuk drivers. We paid the tuktuk drivers half of the agreed amount and told them they should be thankful we were paying them anything at all. Undaunted, we walked out of there determined to find someone who would take us to the real thing.

Thankfully, the first taxi that pulled up alongside us did. All six of us squeezed in and we vented our frustration all the way to our destination. I knew immediately we were at the right place when we arrived. The big glass windows of Somboon offered us a of the bright and clean interiors and no one was dragging us in by our hair.
curried crab - their signature dish

Boy, can I just say the food in Somboon was worth fighting for! No wonder every single person I asked recommendations from listed this. It's become such an institution in Bangkok and is so sought-after that they've created a knock-off version.

They gave us picture menus which facilitated the ordering process. We tried not to overdo it, but everything looked and sounded so good. Within minutes our table was crowded with plates of super fresh and gorgeous-looking seafood. A cart was wheeled up to our table and here they set up a mini bar for our drinks and ice. The waitstaff was very friendly and accomodating. It was already 10:00 and yet the place still had a good crowd.

My favorite: the deep fried fish in sweetened fish sauce
Somboon is a no-frills Chinese-Thai seafood restaurant. Your first sign that there will be Chinese flavors are the chopsticks on the table because the Thais do not use chopsticks. I will not even attempt to describe the food because I couldn't do it justice. Even the pictures (only the steamed prawns with garlic is not pictured) fail to capture the freshness and scrumptiousness of these gifts from the sea. Everything was superb! And from the mouthful mmmms and ohmygods from around the table, it was obvious everyone agreed.

But my most favorite of all was the fried fish! It was crispy on the outside and super soft and juicy on the inside. The sauce with which it was glazed and on which it lay was sweetened fish sauce or naam pla. It was just the most delightful sauce and I couldn't get enough of it. Good thing this dish came last because as soon as I tried it, I practically forgot about the other food.

Oyster Omelette

morning glory

It was unanimous that this was the best meal we had in Bangkok!

<-- look for this sign!

Take note of the Fake Somboon Scam warning in the restaurant's website.

April 16, 2007

I'm a bookworm in the pantry!

I interrupt the regular scheduled posting of my misadventures in Bangkok with an exciting announcement: I'm a bookworm in the pantry!

"Bookworms are everywhere! Christine, this week's Bookworm in the Pantry, creates her lovely blog, Ramblings from a Gypsy Soul, in Manila, The Philippines (see her list of recommended food-related non-cookbooks, over there on the right). Whenever I read her posts, I learn something new about Filipino culture and cuisine — and, of course, I want to get on a plane and go to the places she visits. Christine has traveled to the US, Thailand, Mexico, Vietnam, Egypt, and more. She photographs, she cooks, and, oh yes, she reads; her wish list features dozens of books I'd love to have in my own library."

Lydia is a food writer, co-host of a cooking group and the creative genius behind one of my favorite sites The Perfect Pantry . I call her a creative genius not only because of her very well written posts, pretty pictures and scrumptious-sounding recipes but also because of the basic premise of her website in which she explores every item in her pantry at a time. Thanks to her, I learned more about spices and condiments such as garam masala, epazote, fenugreek, harissa, and pickling spice.

She would also share her recommendations on her favorite books which led to the start of a fun project she launched recently called Bookworms in the Pantry. Every Saturday she features a new bookworm and 5 of their food-related (not cookbooks) book recommendations. It has been so interesting to see what my favorite foodies are recommending, and I've already added a lot of their books to my ever-growing Amazon wishlist.

Thank you so much for doing this, Lydia! Your site is a wonderful resource that not only offers up a wealth of knowledge to its readers, but also much inspiration! :)

Click here to read about the other featured bookworms and here to browse the list of books recommended.

If you'd like to be a bookworm in the pantry, simply email your book list (title/author) to lydia AT ninecooks DOT com.

April 14, 2007

Still nibbling on that Big Mango

catfish salad vendor

To truly appreciate and embrace the vibrant Thai culture, you have to take the time to know and understand the food because it is central to the Thai identity. And though Thai cuisine has been influenced somewhat by neighboring countries such as India and China, it still retains much of it's own unique and distinct flavors. But the most important thing I learned about Thai cuisine is this: the exclusive use of fresh ingredients. Everything is made fresh, including curry pastes which don't contain any curry powder or other dried and ground spices. And by far the best and most affordable place to sample such cuisine is out on the streets. A short stroll down a soi (side street) can yield some of the most exquisite culinary discoveries.

ma-phrao juice off the streets

Take the ma-phrao for example. This small coconut with it's sweet and refreshing juice is found in abundance on the streets for just about 10 Baht (or $ 0.30). They were just the thing for our parched mouths. Though similar to our own buko juice in the Philippines, it has a much nuttier taste and is somewhat sweeter. It was heaven in a husk. I especially enjoyed scraping the succulent flesh with my straw, yup my straw - the flesh was that soft.

thom khaa kai

It's not unusual to see carts on the sidewalk not only serving every item from the Thai kitchen, but also cooking it right there in big woks or pots. Nor is it unusual to see luxury cars vying for space with tuktuks in front of these portable al fresco eateries. Some of the best street food can be found at the markets such as the Suan Lum night bazaar where I ordered a bowl of thom khaa kai (or tom ka gai - chicken coconut soup) with steamed rice. Those who cannot take the heat of the tom yam kung can opt for this milder version. The chili factor is slightly muted by the coconut milk making it more palatable for sensitive tastebuds. I love both soups and when at a Thai restaurant, I like to alternate between the two.

I know I'm starting to sound like a broken record here, but I can't stress enough how hot Bangkok is this time of year! And brave as we tried to be soldiering on in this sticky climate, we longed for the comfort of airconditioning. And when longing turned into desperation we went to the mall. There is no shortage of malls in Bangkok. The only attraction these malls had to me were the food courts where street food could be had at sidewalk prices but in airconditioned comfort.

I've heard varying opinions on which mall has the best food court but because we were already there during the lunch hour, we ate at the MBK Food Centre . Here, they employ a coupon system like in the Suan Lum night bazaar. You exchange your money for coupons and whatever is not used may be redeemed later. Usually 150 Baht ($ 4) is enough for a substantial meal, drink and dessert. There are some stalls though that only accept cash like the one we bought our catfish salad from.

So there I was clutching my coupons. I was good to go but I didn't know where to start. The place was already abuzz with hungry shoppers and the sound of food cooking. Usually the rule of thumb is to go where there is a crowd, preferably a crowd of locals. That didn't work this time though because it was fairly late and most of the diners were already at their tables chomping away. So I turned left and went from stall to stall surveying my options until I made a full circle.

crispy noodles with chicken and gravy

Eventually, I settled for 'crispy noodles with chicken and gravy' as my main. Ok, so it's not exactly Thai but the smells wafting from behind this counter reeled me in. What can I say? I'm a sucker for crispy noodles with MSG heavy sauce. My decision had nothing whatsoever to do with the cute tanned guy with the nice tush and strong-looking hands who was ordering from the same stall and speaking to the vendor in pure Thai (swoon). Nothing at all. This might have been the best decision I made all week, it was great!

the flaming hot catfish salad

My friend and I shared a side of the spiciest catfish salad I've ever had in my life. Look at those chilies! After the initial jolt of heat though, all the elements of the salad came together and it turned out to be very good. I really love this dish, this is one of those things I could probably have everyday without getting tired of it.

khanom buang, crispy pancakes

So this is where I tell you about my favorite foodie discovery in Bangkok - the khanom buang or crispy pancakes. I didn't do the actual discovering of it, my friend did. At first I thought they were tacos and waved them off, full as I was after wiping my noodle plate clean. I was surprised when she told me they were actually sweet and not savory. I took a bite and fell in-love. Where has this been all my life?!

What it is, is a thin wafer-like sheet (similar to our barquillos back home) made with rice flour and topped with a thin sheen of coconut cream, what seemed like palm sugar or panucha and toasted shredded coconut. The yellow strips you see on the pancake on the left of the photo are sweet egg yolk strips which I later learned are called 'golden threads' and are usually made from duck egg yolks. I can't remember much now, 'twas a delicious crunchy-chewy blur! Does anyone know where we can get these here in Manila? Or know how to make them at home?

guava with chili salt, when you need a break from the plum powder

If you like the taste of lemongrass and pandan even half as much as I do, you have to get yourself a chilled bottle or two of Soontra when you're in Bangkok. It's the bomb!

I found this at the Sky Train station and it was just what I needed after 3 hours in the Chatuchak market. Now I'm gonna buy me some lemongrass and pandan leaves and try to recreate it.

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