Pad Thai often serves as an introduction to Thai food for the wary eater. Those who fear to dive straight into a bowl of spicy curry can instead dip their toes daintily into the waters of a more familiar, less spicy, and still wonderfully delicious, plate of stir-fried noodles. For this reason, pad Thai has become something of a global ambassador for Thai culture and a widely recognized symbol of Thailand. As it turns out, it was created for exactly that purpose.
What is Pad Thai?:
Pad Thai is a dish typically made of rice noodles stir-fried with tofu, scrambled egg, and dried shrimp, and dressed with fish sauce, tamarind juice, and palm sugar. Those ingredients form the base, but beyond that, there is much variation. Proteins like pork or shrimp are often added, as well as all manner of fruits and vegetables, such as green papaya, bean sprouts, green onion, or banana flower. Interestingly, most of those base ingredients are not traditionally Thai, which points to the somewhat surprising origin of this dish.
The Origin of Pad Thai:
When you look at the unusual ingredients in pad Thai (rice noodles, tofu, dried shrimp), it begins to seem like a dish that may have roots outside of Thailand. This suspicion is furthered when you take apart the name, kway teow pad Thai, which translates to Thai-style stir-fried noodles. Not only are noodles and stir-frying not traditionally Thai, anything called “Thai-style” is bound to be a dish adapted from another cuisine. While this dish does borrow ingredients and technique from Chinese cuisine, it is undoubtedly Thai. In fact, pad Thai was intentionally created in the 1930s to be the national dish of Thailand.
A man by the name of Plaek Phibunsongkhram, more commonly known as Phibun, is responsible for the creation and dissemination of pad Thai. Phibun was a member of the played a large part in the 1932 coup, which strippped the Siamese royal family of much of their power. He went on to be Thailand’s longest-serving prime minister, and during his time was involved in many changes, many of them quite controversial.
The Thai Cultural Revolution was his nationalistic campaign to transform and modernize Siam. For starters, it changed the name of the country to Thailand, and the people to Thai, as well as promoting the use of the Thai language in favor of regional dialects. On its darker side, there were mandates banning traditional Thai garb, pushing the use of silverware rather than eating with one’s hands, and nationalistic mandates around things such as saluting the Thai flag in public places. Throughout it all, there was also a fear of cultural takeover by the Chinese.
Perhaps then, with fear of losing Thai culture to the growing population with some Chinese ancestry, it makes sense that Phibun would create a national dish which melds the two cuisines. He did this with a campaign called “noodle is your lunch,” in which carts traveled around the cities and distributed free noodles along with a recipe for pad Thai.
Phibun’s political career may have ended in dictatorship and exile, but the national dish that he created has served to spread appreciation of Thai culture around the world. While some of the ingredients and techniques were once borrowed from Chinese cuisine, the flavors were always Thai. And, much like how the tomato became integral to Italian cuisine, so have these ingredients and techniques become Thai. Origin stories in food are always interesting, and really do not matter much in the end. What matters is that pad Thai is a dish balanced with amazing flavors, ingredients, and textures, and that we are all grateful that someone (many people, really) put it together and shared it with us.
So, how do I make it?:
Like many popular street foods, pad Thai is a prep-heavy, fast cooking dish. There is a lot of chopping to get everything ready, but once you start, things cook fast. So, be sure to get your ingredients ready before you start cooking. If you have all your prep done, when the pan gets hot, this meal is easy. If not, you will be frazzled. It is not a hard dish to cook, but it is fast-paced, so that mise en place is important.
This recipe for pad Thai is already pescatarian. If you wish to make it vegetarian, all you need to do is sub soy sauce for the fish sauce, and exclude the shrimp. Take out the egg and you have a vegan option, though the ingredient list is, at that point, pretty heavily reduced.
In the description I say that this dish serves two to four. What that means is that this makes around two restaurant-sized servings. It will fill up two very hungry people. With a salad and maybe a vegetable, this recipe would happily serve four.
8 oz. rice noodles, linguini-sized (order here)
¾ lb. small shrimp, peeled
½ lb. extra firm tofu, sliced into bite-size pieces
2 eggs, beaten
3 tbsp brown sugar (or palm sugar)
3 tbsp tamarind paste
4 tbsp fish sauce
2 tbsp fresh lime juice
2 medium shallots, finely diced
6 cloves garlic, minced
6 scallions, thinly sliced
3 tbsp peanuts, chopped
1 cup bean sprouts
Begin by soaking the rice noodles in cold water for one hour. By the end, they should be pliable but firm. Drain the noodles.
In a bowl, combine the tamarind paste, fish sauce, lime juice, and brown (or palm) sugar. Stir to dissolve the sugar and set aside.
Add 2 tablespoons of high-heat oil to a large skillet or wok over medium-high heat. Once hot, add the noodles and stir fry for 1 minute.
Pour the bowl of sauce over the noodles and stir to ensure that they are all nicely coated. Reduce the heat to medium and push the noodles to one side of the pan.
On the other side of the pan, add a bit of oil and then the shallots, garlic, shrimp, and tofu. Allow these to fry until the shrimp are mostly cooked, stirring occasionally. Also be sure to mix up the noodles every once in a while to keep them from sticking or burning on the bottom.
Mix everything in the pan together and then push it to the outside, creating a well in the center. Pour the beaten eggs into the well and scramble them there.
Your noodles should be cooked through, but now is the time to add a tiny bit of water if they are not fully-cooked.
When the eggs are done, remove the pan from heat, mix in 1 cup of bean sprouts, and allow them to wilt slightly.
Dish out your servings and top with sliced scallions and chopped peanuts. There is no chili in this recipe, so a bit of sriracha is also nice if you like some heat.
Serve with limes, fish sauce, sriracha, and additional bean sprouts, if desired.