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.
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.
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.
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
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!
Cube your protein to bite size.
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.
In a hot wok over high heat, add the peanut oil and heat through.
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.
Add your proteins to the hot wok and fry until lightly browned, about 2-3 minutes.
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.
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.
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.