Like many of the nation’s favourite dishes, pad Thai is so ubiquitous that it must have been around for hundreds of years. But with pad Thai, things aren’t at all what they seem, and even the word ‘Thai’ is a bit of a misnomer. The dish’s full name, kway teow pad Thai, or stir-fried rice noodles, Thai-style, seems to connect it, however vaguely, with southern China, since kway teow is a Hokkien-Chinese dialect word for rice noodles. But whatever, the dish is old, right?
It turns out that that pad Thai was unknown before the 1940s, and its rise to fame started off with the dreams of just one individual. And he wasn’t a chef. It was Prime Minister Plaek Phibunsongkhram who was behind the roaring success. (He was also responsible for changing the name of the country from Siam to Thailand, by the way.) But why, you might ask, was the government so keen on fostering a noodle dish? There were two reasons. Firstly, it was part of their drive to give people a sense of national identity. Even if it had some roots in China, the dish was a Thai invention, and was proclaimed to be Thai. Some people claim that the prime minister himself more or less invented it, though this seems unlikely. The other motive for the introduction of the dish was that Thailand was experiencing widespread poverty, and pad Thai was highly affordable. And just as good, it was relatively healthy. For a small outlay, you could have a filling and nutritious meal.
For years, pad Thai was typical street vendor food (it still is) and it was only slowly adopted by restaurants. If you wanted to eat it, you had to go to the local market, sit at a table and place your order. Alternatively, you could order takeaway pad Thai, and the vendor would simply empty the wok onto newspaper lined with banana leaves and wrap up for you. But then restaurants began to offer pad Thai and later on gentrified it; some 20 years ago, fresh prawns began to appear on menus, and this definitely marked a new phase for the dish. Nowadays, you can still enjoy it in the old-style, sitting on a plastic chair at a vendor’s stall or in a posh restaurant. The choice is yours, but the dish is dependably good.
The techniques for preparing the dish haven’t changed over the years. Chefs prepare no more than two portions together, so as to prevent the noodles clumping. Street food it may be, but not for coach parties. Ingredients are fresh and in the hands of an expert, the result is always a delight. Pad Thai comes in many variations, typically with chicken, shrimp, pork, beef, seafood or shrimp. It’s not spicy and diners usually add their own chilli to the dish.
If you’re patient, you can make pad Thai yourself, just as many Thais do, though most cooks will admit it takes time to get the dish right. For today’s purposes we’ve chosen a basic pad Thai simply using tofu.
Ingredients (serves 2)
• 120g flat rice noodles
• 60ml fish sauce
• 60ml tamarind concentrate, mixed with a little water
• 60g palm sugar
• ¼ tsp chilli powder
• 80ml vegetable oil
• 3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
• 100g extra-firm tofu, chopped into small cubes
• 8 large prawns
• 2 eggs,
• 25g preserved salted radish, chopped
• 1 tbsp small dried shrimp
• ½ cup of bean sprouts
• 3 stalks Chinese chives
• chopped roasted peanuts to taste
• ½ lime wedge, chilli flakes (not powder), fish sauce and sugar, as garnish
Soak the rice noodles in cold water for at least 30 minutes until they’re pliable and then drain. While the noodles are soaking, prepare the pad Thai sauce: mix together the fish sauce, tamarind and palm sugar in a small pan. Heat very gently until the sugar has dissolved. Adjust the ingredients to suit your taste. Add in the chilli to taste. Place to one side.
Heat up a wok and add half the oil, then in quick succession, add the garlic, then the noodles and a splash of water – stand back as you add the water. Continue stir-frying until the ingredients are beginning to dry out, and then add the sauce. Fry until the noodles until they’re slightly chewy.
Place the noodles at the side of the wok and add in the rest of the oil. Fry the tofu and prawns until the tofu is starting to brown, then add the eggs, piercing the yolk and scramble. Mix in with the noodles, and add the radish, dried shrimp, bean sprouts, chives and peanuts. Stir fry until the ingredients are all combined then serve immediately.
If all this strikes you as a bit too tricky, then just nip into your local supermarket if on Samui or Asian supermarket if elsewhere and arm yourself with a sachet of pad Thai sauce. It’s a ready-made brown goo which you simply add, and the results are usually good. Depending on which sachet you use and with some practice they might even be approaching professional level. After all, many street vendors make no secret of the fact that they’re using the special sauce. Cheating? Or just making life a bit easier?
Alternatively, simply go to a restaurant and let an expert throw together the ingredients for you. It’ll definitely be worth it; pad Thai charms the entire nation and helps power millions of people through their day.