Wake me up at midnight and ask me what I’d like to eat, the answer will be “Pad Thai”, probably one of the most iconic Thai foods. It’s just so good, it hits so many flavour points in a single bowl. It also feels very exotic and, I always assumed, was hard to make. But a closer examination of the basic ingredients of Pad Thai recipe reveal that it is not peppered with impossible-to-find oddities. So, how to make Pad Thai at home? I figured I’d give it a try. To quote the unconfirmed last words of General Custer: “What could possibly go wrong?”
What is pad thai?
Pad Thai is essentially a rice noodle stir-fry, so the actual cooking part is quick. There’s a lot of chopping to do beforehand, to prep your mise-en-place. One of the tricks I learned from studying various recipes is to use dried rice noodles that you rehydrate prior to cooking by soaking them (if you prefer to make your own at home, here is how to make Pad Thai noodles). In my culinary wisdom (and with my lack of Thai to read the packaging) I’d thrown the rice noodles into the pan without soaking them, somehow thinking (or more precisely not thinking at all) that they’d magically plump up and cook in the juices of the stir–fry. Not so much.
Now to get chopping: you can put a lot of different variables into Pad Thai, but the basics are tofu and eggs, bean sprouts and coriander. Garlic chives and chicken are pretty standard. A slice of lime, chopped peanuts, maybe some pickled turnips, and raw banana flowers.
Next step: Pad thai sauce
The sauce … well that’s trickier to source. Soy sauce, fish sauce, okay. Tamarind pulp, dried shrimp and palm sugar? Uh-oh. I’ve got a confession to make: to my great delight, I found a pre-mixed Pad Thai paste at the Thai supermarket. Now, normally I would consider this cheating. But this was from Thailand, the container entirely in Thai. Honestly, this is the easier way forward. The only thing that I don’t really approve of is that pre-mixed pastes and sauces tend to contain added sugar, perhaps as a preservative, perhaps just because modern humans have a sweet tooth.
They taste good, but they taste sweeter than I like and sweeter than I feel it is morally acceptable to eat. But when it’s hard to find ingredients, or if you can only find a gallon jar of palm sugar, which you wouldn’t possibly use before the majority of it turns blue, then these one-dish pre-mixes are a good option. I don’t know how I’m going to use the leftover kilo of tamarind pulp that’s hanging out in the refrigerator, giving me the stink-eye each time I open it. Looks like Pad Thai will be my midnight snack of choice for the foreseeable future.
The origins of pad thai
While plates of stir-fried rice noodles are very old and of uncertain origin, some cultural historians think that Pad Thai originated in Ayutthaya Kingdom (1351-1767), with the influence of traders from Vietnam or from China (where wheat noodles and pork were more likely to have featured).
Today, there is no more nationalistically-charged dish in Thailand than Pad Thai. The Thai Prime Minister in the late 1930s and 40s, Plaek Phibunsongkhram, was a big fan of the dish and featured it in a campaign to encourage Thai nationalism. This was when the country changed its name from Siam to Thailand.
Trying to move away from the heavy Chinese influence, and to promote the cultivation and exportation of Thai rice, he wanted to encourage a move away from wheat noodles (a Chinese ingredient) and towards rice noodles and rice dishes. Phibunsongkhram even created a new type of noodle, sen chan, made of rice and charged with nationalistic deliciousness. During the Second World War, with the government’s backing, Pad Thai shot to popularity and became the country’s best-known national dish.