Samui Wining & Dining
Thai China

Dining with Thailand’s famous Benjarong chinaware
adds to the whole Thai cuisine experience.

 

16How we internally rate a meal depends on many different factors. Everything from the location to the service, who we are with, why we are there, the cost, cleanliness of the premises, the look, smell and taste of the food and a host of other considerations are mentally calculated and given a value. And they are a movable feast in terms of what we each individually look for in a dining experience.

 

It’s a subject that has been intensively researched for decades and the top restaurants take note and focus on each and every detail. Even the best food in the world can’t compensate for slow service, smelly toilets, over-pricing or cockroaches scuttling around your feet. One interesting factor is the value we give to what we actually eat off, in most cases plain white plates. As long as they are clean, devoid of thumb prints and aren’t cracked or chipped they are a pretty safe bet. However, occasionally some restaurateurs give this a little more thought and it can pay dividends.

 

Paul Mcdermid recently opened the Spirit House Spa & Restaurant just by the junction of Chaweng Beach Road and the Laem Din Market Road in southern Chaweng. It’s uniquely designed and is reminiscent of an authentic traditional Thai village with a central temple, surrounding Thai villas, a courtyard, canals and a spice garden. The temple has been converted into a multi-roomed Thai cuisine restaurant featuring teak wood furnishings, ancient wall drawings and staff dressed in Thai court-style silks. And when it came to purchasing the crockery, there was only one choice for him. “It had to be the world famous Benjarong porcelain. Without a doubt it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. These dishes are steeped in Thai tradition, and for a long time were reserved solely for the Thai royal family. They fit perfectly with the very essence of what Spirit House is all about. You can hear diners gasp and see them point at the plates when the food is served and many of them take pictures before they start their meal. It’s most impressive with the Kantoke set menus as lots of different dishes are presented at once.

 

Benjarong is the name given to bespoke, hand-painted bone china and porcelain made exclusively in Thailand. Pieces were originally made for the royal court of Thailand and its wealthy merchants. And it’s only relatively recently that it has become available for public purchase. There’s a romantic history to the porcelain that can be traced back to the Ming Dynasty in China (1368-1644). Tradition has it that some 600 years ago, a princess from China married into the Siamese Royal Family and brought with her Benjarong porcelain. At that time it is understood that it was made only for the Emperor of China. Benjarong was then supplied from China to the King of Siam for several generations. Eventually, suitable deposits of kaolin (clay) were discovered in Siam which allowed the production of porcelain to commence in the country. The King of Siam brought some of the artists over from China and established workshops near his palace.

It continued to be produced in small communities of artists with skills handed down from generation to generation for the next 400 years. Some of these ancient patterns are free-form and contrast with the more structured and geometric patterns devised within Siam. Many of these patterns were designed in the reign of King Rama II (1809-1824) but further patterns evolved over the next hundred years. In particular, the trellis pattern dates to the reign of one of the most revered kings, Rama V (or King Chulalongkorn, 1868-1910). It was during his reign that craftsmen were sent from Siam to England to learn the techniques involved in making bone china.

 

The term Benjarong is derived from the Balinese word benja and the Sanskrit word rong which together literally mean ‘five colours’. Traditionally, they were red, yellow, green, blue and white. In more recent times, however, these colours have been augmented by maroon and high purity (18 carat) gold. Designs over the centuries have increased in number, but many still include the following as their basic elements: the rose, the lotus flower, and other emblems representing the Chakri and Supan dynasties in Thailand. Generally, Benjarong is characterised by densely painted and delicately detailed designs with enamelled relief glaze emphasising the background which is further accentuated by gold. And each piece of Benjarong is made to order and has the artist’s signature on the base.


Early in the 1900s, King Rama V permitted Benjarong to be used by his aristocracy and by certain wealthy and influential merchants. The present King of Thailand, King Rama IX, otherwise known as King Bhumibol Adulyadej, decreed at the commencement of his reign, some 60 years ago, that Benjarong was to be available to all who had the means to purchase it. Production of the plates, bowls and ornaments is a process known to only a handful of families in Thailand. The intricacies of how it’s made, the mixing of colours and how the patterns and paints are applied, are closely-guarded secrets.

 

If you happen to be in Bangkok for a few days you could visit Ban Don Kai Dee, or Benjarong Village as it’s also known. It’s in the province of Samut Sakhon just to the west of the capital and the villagers have formed a strong handicraft group that welcomes visitors. You can join in demonstrations of the different processes used in production of the porcelain, tour the village and surrounding area. And, of course, purchase some souvenirs.

 

But, whilst you’re on Samui, do what you’re really supposed to do with this marvelous china, and that’s eat off it! Spirit House is open from 2:00 pm until 10:30 pm (kitchen) every day and offers a free pick-up service in the Chaweng area.

 

Johnny Paterson

 


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