Pad Thai

Good food, iconic food, is often a bit of a mystery, if for no other reason than the roots of such stuff are hard to unearth in any definitive way. Take Pad Thai, (AKA Phat Thai, or Phad Thai), as a shining example; the ubiquitous noodle dish that, as far as we generally think, hails from its namesake country. Best guesses would indicate that the dish was introduced to what is now Thailand some time in the 14th or 15th centuries, when the area was known as the Kingdom of Ayutthaya. The introduction may have come from Viet Nam, or China, but we’ll likely never know for sure.

Way back when, when Pad Thai arrived
Way back when, when Pad Thai arrived

What we can be sure of is the stone cold fact that Pad Thai, done right, is stunningly delicious, and uniquely Thai, so much so that Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram, the Prime Minister of Thailand in the middle twentieth century, heavily promoted Pad Thai as a vehicle for nationalism, when he was leading the charge to change Siam into modern Thailand. At the time, Chinese influence was strong in the region, inlcuding the popularity of wheat noodles. Phibunsongkhram championed rice noodles in an effort to reduce that influence, and the east is history. American, British, and Aussie soldiers exposed to Pad Thai during WW II brought the love home with them, and the dish quickly conquered the world. For many casual diners, Pad Thai is the one dish they unerringly identify as Thai. In 2011, a CNN pole place Pad Thai in the top 5 of the ‘world’s most delicious foods.’

Like many signature dishes, (think pasta in Italy, stew almost everywhere, you get the idea), every Thai cook has an authentic recipe, and who are we to argue about the ‘most authentic?’ There are some fundamental elements and processes you really need in order to make great Pad Thai, but after that, the sky’s the limit – It begs for creativity, and is designed to take advantage of what’s fresh and available.

In Thailand, Pad Thai is largely street food, made by cooks who have been perfecting their signature version for decades, if not generations. In such a highly competitive market, you’ve simply gotta be really good at it, or you don’t survive. In America, all too often what passes for Pad Thai wouldn’t last a day in Bangkok. Often overtly oily and heavy, that version is the antithesis of truly great Pad Thai. The real stuff is fairly dry, light, and light reddish-brown in color – a perfect balance of the complex flavors that make it up, salty, sweet, sour, umami, and heat in harmony. Pad Thai is wonderful done vegetarian style. If you like proteins, try fresh, local tofu in a batch. By the same token, almost any protein will shine as well; fish, shellfish, or poultry will do nicely.

The seasoning is the thing, and the mix is thus – rice noodles, stir fried with tamarind (sour), fish sauce (salty), chiles (heat), and palm sugar (sweet), is the magic trick that makes this wonderful stuff. There are many more things that can and do get added to Pad Thai, but the essence of the dish is a stunningly good umami (savory) creation.

Tamarind paste - the heart of Pad Thai
Tamarind paste – the heart of Pad Thai

As with all things wonderful, the quality and freshness of your ingredients absolutely defines the dish. In preparation for making great Pad Thai, take a field trip to a local Asian grocer, and ask for help – Chances are good you’ll get some great tips on what’s best, and your dish will shine as a result. Without question, your rice noodles should be as good a quality as you can find, as should the fish sauce – The latter available to us in the United States runs the gamut from sublime to horrid, so check out this excellent primer from Our Daily Brine, and heed their findings. The bad stuff is ubiquitous here, and it’s really, really bad – stuff like Three Crabs or Squid smell and taste horrible, and can easily kill an entire dish. On the other hand, really good fish sauce, like the superlative Red Boat, smells and tastes wonderful all by itself. Note for vegetarians – You’ll want to sub soy sauce for the fish sauce, and here too, the better the quality, the better the dish.

Red Boat, the King of fish sauce.
Red Boat, the King of fish sauce.

Finally, you’ll want a wok to do this dish justice, with a truly hot burner throughout.
Real Deal Pad Thai
Serves 4 to 6

1 package Thai Rice Noodles
1/2 Pound Protein – Tofu, Baby Shrimp, Chicken, etc
1 Cup Chinese Chive
4 Tablespoons Tamarind Paste
3 Tablespoons Peanut Oil
3 Tablespoons Peanuts
2 Tablespoons Fish Sauce
2 teaspoons Palm Sugar
3 cloves Garlic
3 Spring Onions
2 teaspoons White Pepper berries
2-3 teaspoons Thai Chiles
2 medium Eggs
1 fresh Lime
Optional –
1 Tablespoon Preserved Turnip
1/2 Cup Bean Sprouts

In a large mixing bowl, cover the noodles with lukewarm water by at least an inch. Let them sit for 5 minutes or so, then pour out the water and add fresh again. Let the noodles soak while you’re prepping the other ingredients. When they come out of the package, the noodles will be springy, kind of plastic feeling – When they’re ready to fry, they should feel flexible, but in the least mushy or soft – This is the big key to great Pad Thai noodles – They should be on the dry side when they hit the wok – and you can always add moisture, but you can’t fix mushy noodles!

Cubed proteins - we used chicken thighs
Cubed proteins – we used chicken thighs

Cube your protein to bite size.

Get your Mis together - Pad Thai prep
Get your Mis together – Pad Thai prep

Mince the garlic, cut spring onions into 1/4″ thick rounds, rough chop peanuts, quarter the lime, (Mince the preserved turnip, and rinse the bean sprouts if you’re adding those, and set aside).

Have fish sauce, tamarind, and sugar ready to go, with a measuring spoon right at hand.

Combine pepper and chiles in a spice grinder and pulse until they’re a nice, even consistently. Set aside.

White pepper and Thai chile blend
White pepper and Thai chile blend

In a hot wok over high heat, add the peanut oil and heat through.

Fry the peanuts light golden brown
Fry the peanuts light golden brown

Add the chopped peanuts and fry until golden brown, about 1 minute. Remove peanuts with a slotted spoon and set them on clean paper toweling to drain.

Add the garlic, half the spring onion, and half the chives to the wok and fry, about 1 minute.

Proteins at work
Proteins at work

Add your proteins to the hot wok and fry until lightly browned, about 2-3 minutes.

Noodles as they hit the wok - flexible, but not soft.
Noodles as they hit the wok – flexible, but not soft.

Drain the rice noodles and add them to the wok. The noodles will start out stiff, so give them a minute or so to absorb the heat and steam from the wok, then fold them into the other ingredients. Stir steadily throughout.

Noodles starting to soften, time to incorporate them
Noodles starting to soften, time to incorporate them

Add the fish sauce, tamarind, sugar, pepper, and chiles to the wok and stir vigorously. Squeeze half the lime in as well.

Make room on one side of the wok and crack the eggs into it, scramble them quickly, then incorporate.

When the rice noodles have softened to al dente, taste the Pad Thai and adjust seasoning if necessary – You want a nice, even balance of all the flavors. The noodles should be soft and quite dry.

Real Deal Pad Thai
Real Deal Pad Thai

Sprinkle the peanuts, remaining chives and spring onions on top and serve immediately – we bring the wok to the table and let folks dish up from that.

Have fish sauce, chiles, and palm sugar at the table so folks can Doctor their plate as they see fit.

And yes, it’s even better the next day.

House Made Char Siu Pork

With fast Asian a rapidly rising dining option, there are likely few carnivores out there who don’t know and love Char Siu pork, the ubiquitous ‘Chinese Barbecued Pork.’ Served with nose-searing Chinese mustard and toasted sesame seeds, it’s not only a killer snack, it’s fabulous in fried rice, or with fresh apple slices and sharp cheddar cheese. To know Char Siu is to love it, but perhaps not so much the price – an 8 ounce package of the stuff from anybody good can set you back $8 to $12, or a whopping $16 to $24 a pound. Any time prices get that stratospheric, it’s time to get sensible and make your own at home. There are subtle variations, but the essence of the dish is known, reproducible, and easy to make.

The Char Siu we know and love has its roots in Cantonese cooking, that which comes by way of Guangdong province, and its capital city, Guangzhou. Good Cantonese cooks are revered throughout China and the world. The hallmarks of the style are fresh, local ingredients, well balanced dishes, and preparations that compliment, but never overpower, the star of the show. Unlike many other Chinese cuisines, Cantonese cooking doesn’t use a lot of fresh herbs, relying instead on a litany of dried and prepared spices and sauces. Many of these are so mainstream that they are widely considered ‘Chinese’ by neophytes – everything from Hoisin, Oyster, and Plum sauces, to sweet and sour, black bean sauce, and shrimp paste. The master sauces from which a wealth of dishes spring is reminiscent of classic French cooking, right down to Master Stock, used for braising and poaching meats and fish.

Char Siu is, in fact, one of those master sauces, used for pork, chicken, and wildfowl. The combination of sweet, savory, and exotic is the fuel that makes the barbecued pork so damn good. There are a few things you must put into a Char Siu marinade in order to faithfully reproduce what’s in your minds eye, and a few others you can use if you wish – As with many dishes and cuisines, there really is no one right way – If you like it, make it that way, it’s all good. Traditionally, Char Siu is cooked over charcoal, and that is also for my mind, a must do when you make it at home. The meat isn’t smoked, per se, but it does get, (and need), that certain je nais sais quoi that only cooking over coals can provide. What’s often perceived as a smoke ring with this meat, a la American pit barbecue, is actually all brought on by the marinade – There are a lot of commercial makers who add some kind of red food coloring to the mix to enhance that effect – Naturally, we’re gonna pass on that option.

Here then is our spin on Char Siu. We recommend using pork tenderloin for the meat. It has the perfect size, fat to lean ratio, and relatively quick cooking time for this dish.

Char Siu Pork

1 1/2 to 2 pounds Pork Tenderloin.
2 Tablespoons dark Soy Sauce
1 1/2 Tablespoons Honey
1 1/2 Tablespoons Hoisin Sauce
1 Tablespoon Red Fermented Bean Curd
1 Tablespoon Peanut Oil
2 teaspoons Rice Wine Vinegar
1 teaspoon Oyster Sauce
1/2 teaspoon Chinese Five Spice
1/2 teaspoon sweet, smoked Paprika
1/2 teaspoon granulated Garlic
1/2 teaspoon Onion Powder

Combine all marinade ingredients in a small sauce pan over medium heat and bring to a simmer.
As soon as the sauce starts to simmer, remove it from heat and allow it to cool to room temperature – The cooking help homogenize the sauce, and the cool down allows flavors to further marry.
Place the pork and marinade in a ziplock bag and expel as much air as possible, (and if you’ve a vacuum sealer, so much the better.)
Gently massage the marinade onto the pork, coating evenly and thoroughly.
Refrigerate for at least 12 hours, and for my mind, 48 hours is best – The longer you go, the more pronounced the effect of the marinade on the pork.

Char Siu Pork Marinating
Char Siu Pork Marinating

Light a lump charcoal fire in a grill and allow the coals to become white hot.
Set up a two zone grill, with the coals all on one side, and a drip pan only under the other side – This is indirect grilling, and makes not only perfectly roasted meats, but almost eliminates the possibility of burning expensive flesh – Kinda like a convection oven, only way cheaper…

Setting up a 2 Zone Grill
Setting up a 2 Zone Grill

Open the bottom vents on the grill about half way.
Place the marinated tenderloins over the drip pan on the cool side of the grill.

Setting up a 2 Zone Grill
Setting up a 2 Zone Grill

Give them a baste with a little more of the marinade.
Place your lid on the grill, with the top vents over the meat, on the cool side.

Setting up a 2 Zone Grill
Setting up a 2 Zone Grill

Open the top vents about half way.
You do not need to turn the meat; check on it, and baste a bit, about every 10 to 15 minutes.
Use all the remaining marinade to baste.
When the internal temperature of the tenderloin reaches 155° F, remove it from the grill and set it aside to rest for 15 minutes – DO NOT cut into the meat until it rested!

House Made Char Siu Pork
House Made Char Siu Pork

Cut the tenderloin on a bias, at about a 45° angle, and serve with rice and steamed veggies.

House Made Char Siu Pork
House Made Char Siu Pork

Real Deal Fried Rice

The difference between authentic, regional Chinese cooking and the Americanized versions most of us were exposed to in the Twentieth century is vast indeed. That said, we were raised on the latter before discovering the former, so there are times when we jones for the cheap seats. Nonetheless, there are genuine roots to all that Americanized stuff as well – Even sweet and sour whatever, or chop suey. Dishes made famous, (infamous?), here were generally a far cry from their authentic roots, due predominantly to a lack of proper ingredients. While Chinese immigrants often brought, grew, or made the tools and supplies needed for authentic cooking with them, those were neither truly desired by nor fed to American diners for many decades.

Happily, here in the 21st century, most, if not all of what you need to cook authentic regional Chinese dishes is readily available. Even in relatively small towns, there is often a thriving Asian market, and if not, it’s all there in online stores. Naturally, the recipe resources available to home chefs has blossomed as well; there are myriad cookbooks for virtually every Chinese cooking style and region, let alone classes, online videos, and groups dedicated to the exploration thereof.

UrbanMonique House Fried Rice

Without a doubt one of, if not the most beloved Americanized dishes, is fried rice, and for good reason. The combination of proteins, veggies, fruit, and sauces is almost limitless, and few dishes are more satisfying when made well. Add the fact that it’s a perfect use for leftover rice, and you’ve got a perennial winner. Naturally, this begs the question – Where did fried rice actually originate?

Frying rice in some form or another has been done for as long as man has been eating cereals, and recipes harken as far back as the sixth century AD. The most well known variety is often called Yangzhou, after the city in the east central coast of China; it includes roast pork, prawns, scallions, and green peas. This is still considered one of, if not the signature version of fried rice, served at Chinese restaurants throughout the world, and called either House, or Special fried rice. That popularity doesn’t necessarily apply to China herself – There, myriad variants of the dish are found, especially in the south where rice is a major staple – Everything from heavily sauced Fujian and Cantonese versions, to Chāhan flavored with Katsuobushi, (Bonito flakes), and the red and white, yin-yang Yuan style. And that’s just China – There are signature versions from Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Singapore, and Europe. There’s a Hawaiian version with Spam, and an ‘American’ version in Thailand served with hot dogs and catsup, and more varieties from South America and Cuba as well.

While you certainly can and should check out those recipes, the ubiquity of the dish certainly encourages exploration in the kitchen. Like spaghetti sauce, or mac and cheese, every household has a signature version that’s the best, so there’s no reason you shouldn’t add one of your own.

The real trick to great fried rice lies no so much in the add-ons, but in what rice you use – for the best results, you want cold, day old rice – or even frozen, (and that should be all the reason you need to save leftover rice every chance you get). The reason is moisture, or lack thereof. If you’ve ever tried making fried rice from fresh stuff, chances are you ended up with something soggier than you wanted. Using refrigerated, day old allows the rice grains to dry out somewhat, yielding nicely separated grains, and the slightly chewy texture we’re after. For longer storage, freeze rice in a ziplock bag with the air sucked out. Either way, once you’ve got your base material squared away, building whatever you like becomes a quick and easy task.

Long grain white rice is best for frying

Next question – what kind of rice is best? Long grained white will dependably cook up plump, distinct grains. This is due to a couple of important starch molecules, namely amylose, and amylopectin. Long grain white rice contains the highest concentration of amylose. This starch does not gelatinize when rice cooks, so varieties rich in it yield that fluffy stuff we’re after. Amylose also crystallizes and hardens when rice is cooled after cooking, but melts readily upon reheating, again lending itself perfect to frying over high heat. Amylopectin, on the other hand, makes rice that is sticky and softer, and while that’s perfect for risotto or paella, it’s not so much for fried. Medium and short grain varieties are richer in this starch, while long grain white has significantly less. Thai jasmine rice is also long grained, but has less amylose, so can get a bit sticky. If you like the slightly sweeter taste of jasmine, Basmati might be a better choice for frying.

Restaurant woks at work

And finally before we cook, what about the best vessel for the job – to wok or not to wok, that is the question. The answer is, not absolutely necessary, but if you want the real McCoy, then only a wok over a really hot flame will give you that certain je ne sais quoi – the slightly grilled, smoky, almost burnt flavor notes great fried rice flaunts. When the weather allows here, we cook ours in a wok over the same propane powered burner we use for roasting coffee, outside – There’s no way I know of to get a hot enough flame inside, unless you’ve got a pretty serious commercial quality gas range.

A carbon steel wok on a propane burner

Cooking in a high carbon steel wok also imparts a certain flavor note of its own, just as cast iron does. It’s a subtle thing, but certainly notable and for my mind, highly desirable. If you don’t own a wok and decide to buy one, go with a 14″ like ours, with a flat bottom and double handles, one long, one short. Take great care to read up on the proper initial cleaning and seasoning of a new wok – failure to do so can literally sink your investment before you even get started. Now, all that said, you can do a perfectly fine job in a heavy skillet, but in any event, use the biggest thing you’ve got in your kitchen – a big cast iron skillet or Dutch oven is a fine alternative.

Alright, now that we have our pan chosen, here are a few basic guidelines for the overall process.

Get your pan as hot as you can safely get it, and use an oil with a high smoke point, like peanut or avocado. Those elusive grilled/smoky notes depend on it.

Use the biggest pan you’ve got – this is why even good home woks are 14″ – an overloaded pan won’t get hot enough to do the job right. If you’re cooking for more than two, do so in batches, as you would when deep frying.

Don’t overdo the sauce – Too much of a good thing will overpower the flavor of delicate ingredients, and will make your rice mushy as well. Note: most soy sauce you find in stores is considered dark, even if it doesn’t say so – Light soy is notably saltier and more assertive in taste, so should be used sparingly.

Alright – Here’s our version to get you started.

UrbanMonique House Fried Rice

UrbanMonique House Fried Rice
4-5 Cups cooked Rice, (1 Cup of dry long grain white should yield just right)
1/2 Pound Chinese Pork, fine diced
2 large Eggs
4-6 Scallions, trimmed and diced
1/2 Cup Chinese Long Beans, trimmed and diced
1/4 Cup Carrot, fine diced
1/4 Cup sweet Pepper, diced
1/4 Cup Green Peas
1-2 Tablespoons Avocado or Peanut Oil

For the Sauce
1 Tablespoon steaming hot Water
1 Tablespoon Dark Soy Sauce
1 teaspoon Light Soy Sauce
1 teaspoon Sesame Oil
1 teaspoon Honey or Agave Nectar
1/2 teaspoon Szechuan Pepper
1/4 teaspoon Smoked Sweet Paprika

In a non-reactive mixing bowl, combine all sauce ingredients and whisk with a fork to incorporate. Allow flavors to marry for about 10 minutes before use.

Scramble eggs until fluffy, remove from heat and set aside.

Preheat your wok/pan over medium-high until it’s fully heated through.

Gently massage the cold rice by hand, to break up any and all clumps.

Turn the heat up to high, add a tablespoon of oil to the wok and let it heat through.

Add the carrots and peppers to the hot oil and fry for about 2 minutes, stirring constantly.

Add the scallions, peas, and long beans and fry for another couple of minutes, until heated through.

Add the rice and pork, then fry for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring constantly.

Add the sauce and the eggs, stir to incorporate and heat through.

Serve piping hot.