Top of the list for the luxury-loving foodie: An unforgettable few days at Bangkok's ultra-glam Siam Hotel. The glass roof over the reflecting pool was inspired by the Musee d'Orsay.
The lights are up, the wreath is on the door, the holiday cards are in the works and…
oh, yes. I was just getting to that: The prezzies.
Now listen up: Being tardy is no excuse for giving that fuzzy wool cap with tasseled braids to your fashionista daughter. And I promise you that no one, repeat no one, really wants a bottle of chocolate bitters.
No, you can do better. And you’d better do better, because it’s definitely not the thought that counts.
In “The Science Behind Gifting” (The Wall Street Journal, December 4, 2012, pp. D1-D2), Sumathi Reddy says a recent study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General revealed that “thoughtful gifts don’t necessarily lead to greater appreciation.” Reddy adds: “The benefit of such a gift actually accrues mainly to the giver, who derives a feeling of closeness to the other person…”
Even more annoying: a survey showing that 79 percent of respondents think “regifting is socially acceptable during the holiday season.” Just so you know, glass bowls, picture frames and “unattractive clothing” are on the passalong list.
So here’s my strategy: Let’s buy presents that we—all of us obsessed travelers and spice lovers—would like to receive. That way we get the glow that comes from shopping for stuff of our own desire. I’m pretty sure that most of these gifts won’t be passed on to another, er, victim….but if they are, it’s not your problem! Here we go:
For the luxury-loving foodie: A week (or a long weekend) at The Siam Hotel in Bangkok. Yes, I did say Bangkok, as in Thailand. It may take 20 grueling hours to get there, but the moment you alight from your chauffeured Mercedes...
and are greeted by the smiling staff on the steps of this sexy and serene urban resort, you’ll feel as if you’ve arrived at the posh home you were always meant to have.
Here’s what I loved: It’s a new hotel, made to look old—think black-and-white, King Rama V (1853-1910) architecture, an airy palace inspired by a European Grand Tour, with museum-worthy temple carvings and oodles of antiques. Lots of white stucco, cool breezeways, restrained tropical plantings, and a black marble reflecting pool where flickering votives create magic on balmy evenings. Sumptuous suites—I stayed in a travel-themed room adorned with old maps and a vintage bicycle—so cosseting that you’ll have to force yourself to go out, especially when the most delicious tom kha gai you’ve ever tasted can be served in your private sitting room.
Did I mention the personal butler who’s there to anticipate your every whim?
But do leave your room because there are lots of lazy things to do right at the hotel, which, thankfully, is well away from the smog, traffic and hurly burly of tourist Bangkok. At the Opium Spa, sybaritic treatments like a green tea Himalayan salt scrub or traditional Thai massage come with sips of ginger tea and whiffs of geranium and sweet orange. Leaf through old Siam travel books in the library, paddle in the infinity pool or, if you must, take a class in Thai kick boxing. Chon Thai (chon means “spoon”), the hotel’s atmospheric restaurant, occupies three vintage peak-roofed houses originally collected by silk maven Jim Thompson. With views of the Chao Phraya and its mesmerizing river traffic, it’s perfect place to linger over a strong breakfast cappuccino, or a tamarind mojito and bowl of gaeng kiew whan goong (green curry with shrimp, eggplant and coconut milk) as the sun sets over the water.
It might be tough to shake off such blissful indolence, but foodies should not miss Chef Blair Mathieson’s private market trip. After loading a tuk-tuk with the freshest herbs, fruits and vegetables, you’ll return to the riverside cooking school where an adorable sous-chef will walk you through recipes for som tum (shredded green papaya salad with chilies, fish sauce and roasted peanuts)—and other delectable dishes of your choice, which of course, you then get to eat. Use the hotel launch to get closer to the sights like Wat Pho and the Emerald Buddha, or ramble through Chinatown and Silom to sample Bangkok’s world-famous street food. And don’t miss David Thompson’s Nahm, voted one of the world top 50 restaurants—the remarkable tasting menu will take your palate on a flavor dance you’ll never forget.
The Siam Hotel, 3/2 Thanon Khao, Vachirapaybal, Dusit, Bangkok 10300, Thailand. Phone: +66 (0) 2206-6998. Web: www.the siamhotel.com
Photo: Import Food
OK, back to earth. If the exchequer won’t support a Thai fling, I'm 99.9 percent sure that the curry-loving cook on your list will appreciate a case of Aroy-D’s luscious, almost fresh-tasting coconut milk. This all-natural, preservative-free milk, which comes in aseptic packaging, is so far superior to the usual canned stuff that there’s really no comparison. It's one of my luckiest discoveries, the secret ingredient in richly flavorful dishes like Mystica's Sri Lankan Fish Curry with Coconut, Turmeric and Ginger, that's about as close to fresh coconut milk as you can get without the laborious process of making it yourself.
Be sure to add hard to find fresh ingredients-- bumpy kaffir limes and their leaves, searing Thai chilies and resinous-tasting galangal—delivery to be scheduled when the recipient’s actually ready to cook—and a copy of David Thompson’s Thai Street Food—an oversize cookbook with gorgeous market photos and hard-to-resist recipes—and you’ll make the right person very, very happy.
For cooks with a bad case of wanderlust, here are three transporting books. Each has such a strong sense of place, that you might well feel that you’ve spent the afternoon half way around the world without leaving the comfort of your own kitchen. Of course, each might just accentuate the "need" to travel to distant shores. Oh, well…
Jerusalem: A Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sammi Tamimi. Two chefs who grew up in Jerusalem, one in the Jewish west, the other in the Muslim east, didn’t meet until much later in London, where they became partners in the first Ottolenghi restaurant—now an expanding culinary empire. Their first collaborative book, explores the cross-cultural flavors and spices that make up the city’s “tapestry of cuisines,” with tantalizing recipes like Burnt Eggplant with Garlic, Lemon and Pomegranate Seeds and Hummus Kawarma (Lamb) with Lemon Sauce, “one of the most sensational things you can put in your mouth.” Magnificent location photography by Adam Hinton makes you feel as if you’re actually in this ancient city.
DIYers might pair this gift with a jar of aromatic Baharat, which translates from the Arabic simply as “spices”—in this case, black peppercorns, coriander seeds, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, cumin, cardamom and nutmeg. The blend, which, appears in several recipes, is used to flavor meats, fish, stews and various bean and grain dishes. The recipe is on p. 299.
Burma: Rivers of Flavor, by Naomi Duguid. This is the first solo cookbook for Duguid, who previously authored the award-winning Hot Sour Salty Sweet and 4 other books with her ex-, Jeffrey Alford—and it’s a beauty: Wonderful photographs of the people and markets of Burma, taken by Duguid on her trips there, and tempting recipes for fairly easy dishes such as Aromatic Chicken from the Shan Hills, with ginger, red chilies, turmeric and lemon grass, among other spices, and Street-Side Seductions, rice pancakes filled with thick, sweet coconut milk. You might give the cook a boost by enclosing a package of the best dried red chilies you can find, or a bottle of homemade red chili oil, recipe on p. 25, with the book.
Duguid has a pleasingly straightforward writing style and the book is filled with pages of observations about everything from the ancient city of Murak U to the experience of listening to a Saydaw ("learned senior monk") speak about compassion under a starry sky. In the back, there's a short up to date history of Burma and tips on traveling there. Duiguid’s week-long cooking trip to Burma in early February is sold out, but guess what? You can add your name(s) to the waiting list for the next one.
Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, by Fuschia Dunlop. I’m a huge fan of Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, Dunlop’s humorous, “Sweet-Sour Memoir” of eating and cooking as a college student in China. A British journalist who has written for the Financial Times and the Asian Wall Street Journal, she was also the first Westerner to train at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine, China’s top cooking school.
While searching for her latest book, Every Grain of Rice (February, 2013) I ran across Revolutionary Chinese Cooking, (2006, but new to me) which explores “the astonishing flavors, history and tastes of the ancient Hunan region.” Though we tend to think of Hunan food as ultra-spicy, the 120 recipes display a more varied and flavorful cuisine, with dishes such as Spring Rolls with Three Silken Threads, stuffed with bamboo shoots, bacon and Chinese chives and Steamed Sea Bream with Purple Perilla, an herb with “an almost tealike flavor, dark and intense.”
A brief essay on the historical roots of Hunanese cooking offers glimpses of an elegant, 2,000-year old cuisine that was virtually destroyed by Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Dunlop notes that the Chairman “was famously rustic in his own eating habits and had a lifelong distaste for refined and exotic food.” Still, some of the old ways have survived in this ancient cuisine’s current incarnation: the use of lotus stems and fermented black soybeans, and the technique of steaming foods.
Many of the delicious-sounding recipes, like Chairman Mao’s Red Braised Pork, are flavored with dried red chilies, a relatively recent innovation, so why not pair this book with a vintage mason jar of fiery Chinese Tien Tsien Chili Peppers?
Well, enough eating. Sometimes you’d just like to pour yourself a stiff drink and do a little daydreaming.
This year, B and I have been enjoying fine, aged, sipping rums. I’m betting that someone on your list would appreciate El Dorado’s 12 Year Old Special Reserve from Guyana. (Even better, the 15- or 21-year old, if you can find them.) Distilled in traditional wooden pot stills, it’s a rich, heavy-bodied, intensely aromatic rum made from the molasses of Demarara sugar cane. Tony Sachs, writing for Huff Po, said, that El Dorado “initially floods the mouth with the sweetness of Demerara sugar, but right underneath is a good amount of spice; rich notes of toffee, nut, wood and coffee; and dried fruit…”
Sachs doesn’t identify the spices—and I can’t either—but this rum is a revelation to anyone who grew up guzzling Bacardi and Coke. Light a crackling fire, spread some cushions on the floor and pour yourself (and a significant other) two fingers in crystal glasses. (Never, ever ruin this remarkable tipple by using it in a cocktail.) It won’t be long before you feel those soft Caribbean breezes wafting around you.
Now, we all know it's better to give than to receive. I may be a material girl, but even I get a glow from selfless actions. This year my personal happiness project involves giving to the Bhutan Nuns Foundation.
Earlier this fall we visited two nunneries high in the hills of Bhutan. At one, I was reduced to tears by the strong voices of young girls chanting to Green Tara; at the other, I was invited by a group of nuns, ranging in age from six or seven to the late teens, to help mold miniature stupas of red clay, offerings presented by devout Buddhists when worshipping at temples or other sacred sites. A grain of rice is pressed into the bottom of each one for good fortune.
I mangled my stupa of course, but the nuns only giggled; one kindly told me that I had gained merit just by trying. Bless her...
Bhutan’s nunneries offer many young girls the kind of hope and support they might not ordinarily have, as well as the chance of an education—but most are badly under-funded. Unlike monasteries which receive both state and private support, many nunneries lack essentials such as clean water and electricity, bathrooms and adequate nutrition, as well as teachers, books and mediation halls for spiritual practice.
I invite you to explore the Bhutan Nuns website. The foundation, established in 2009 by Her Majesty, the Queen Mother, Ashi Tshering Yangdon Wangchuck, has an 11-goal program that aims to “improve the well-being and education of nuns…who contribute profoundly to the goal of Gross National Happiness for every person in Bhutan.” How do they do this? By counter-balancing the material changes occurring across Bhutan with age-old Buddhist values of compassion and non-attachment.
I found the few hours I spent in the joyful company of these women immeasurably moving. I believe you will too.
Contributions can be made on-line, or mailed to The Bhutan Foundation, Suite 525, 2100 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington DC 20037. Note: Please mention that your donation is for the Bhutan Nuns Foundation on the memo line of your check.