You might think of Pad Thai as take-out that went backpacking in Southeast Asia, a quest of self-fulfilling, comfort food prophecy.
It’s a food beloved in Thailand. But it’s possible that more people who know it and love it have only had it in various restaurants outside of Thailand. Can you imagine how many travelers to Thailand make it their first order? And how often the average traveler in Thailand chooses Pad Thai over the myriad other options?
It’s a defensible choice because the unique blend of sweet and sour is utterly delectable. As Thai culinary specialist Kasma Loha-unchit writes over on her Thai Food & Travel blog, “there are as many ways to make pad Thai as there are cooks, geographical regions, moods, and creative entrepreneurial spirit.”
In her short and lovely essay about the origins of this dish you learn how the Chinese love of noodles and the Thai government’s economic stimulus programs following the Second World War encouraged the development of Pad Thai. (Think Build Back Better but with noodle shops.) So while the cynical traveler might be inclined to pigeonhole Pad Thai as the spaghetti carbonara of Thailand, it’s so much more.
For the No Nightshade cook, Pad Thai is also about the only Thai food that’s easy to spoof. Nightshade peppers are so deeply integrated into Thai cuisine that any nightshade free option is hobbled right right out of the gate for the vast majority of dishes.
A couple of quick notes here that don’t quite fit within the scheme of a recipe.
First, commit to making your own tamarind paste. You don’t need to do it all of the time or even the first time but you do need to do it fairly soon because the results are spectacular. Tamarind is a legume, and as such there are beans in a pod. You can purchase these pods, and you can also purchase a block of tamarind pulp with the bean husks (mostly) removed but with beans and fiber embedded in the pulp. Rehydrating that pulp and separating it from the less edible components is not particularly complex, but it is a bit tedious and time consuming. And worth it. Look here, here, or here for a tutorial. (Be aware that it doesn’t keep as long as the store-bought variant.)
Second, because you’re obviously going to skip the distinctive Thai nightshade peppers, you might enjoy scouring your Asian grocery for other unique additions. In our house we sometimes add salted pickled radishes (diced finely) and baby shrimp. The shrimp are an acquired taste, and add both texture and a stronger seafood element.
Third, it’s not a bad idea to conceptualize Pad Thai as a pasta salad. Not because it belongs in that category, but because on the assembly side you want to be careful about applying too much heat or stirring. Lots of Asian noodle recipes involve cooking everything up into a tasty milieu, but many elements of Pad Thai don’t tolerate that much heat or kinetic energy.
- 3 tablespoons tamarind paste
- 2 tablespoons jaggery
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 2 tablespoons lime juice
- 1 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
- Pick at least one; we often use 2. Don’t forget there are eggs too.
- 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken, breasts or thighs, plus salt, lime juice, and ginger to marinate
- 1 pound shrimp, peeled and de-veined
- 1 pound firm tofu, cubed and marinated in Thai hoisin sauce
- 12 ounces to 1 pound Thai rice noodles
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 cup Savoy cabbage
- 1 large carrot
- 3 large eggs
- 5 green onions, whites minced, edible greens sliced into 1-inch pieces
- 2 cups bean sprouts
- 1/2 cup unsalted or lightly salted peanuts, chopped
- 1/3 cup cilantro, chopped
- salted radish pickles
1In a small bowl combine the tamarind paste, jaggery, fish sauce, lime juice, and rice wine vinegar. Jaggery often comes in hard pucks; given enough time these liquids will soften the jaggery up but if you must hurry the procedure 10 or 20 seconds in the microwave will do the job. Break up the puck with a fork as it softens, and it will dissolve easily.
2Marinate your proteins. With tofu, cut as you desire before marinating. With the chicken, you can cut before marinating or you can marinate and cook the breasts whole, slicing it afterwards.
3Prepare the noodles. It’s easy to overcook the rice noodles. If you’d like the final texture to be somewhat mushy then cook the noodles first, otherwise you can soften them up in a pot of water. (The less heat you apply the longer this process will take; the more heat you apply the easier it will be to cross over into mush.)
4Shred or julienne your vegetables—a carrot, cabbage. Savoy’s thin leaves are nice, but if you’ve only got regular cabbage available, just be sure it’s in very fine pieces.
5You can use a wok or a large skillet depending on what’s available and your own personal cooking style. Stir fry, in no particular order, your proteins, setting each aside as they’re done.
6Lightly stir fry your vegetables. Toss the garlic in (and the baby shrimp if you’re using them) and quickly follow it with the cabbage and carrot. When these are cooked turn heat to low and add the drained noodles and the sauce until mixed and heated lightly.
7Scramble your eggs.
8Assemble as fancy or as messy as you wish. If you tend toward mushier noodles the more you mix the more the noodles will fall apart. It’s reasonable to treat the been sprouts and green onions and sprouts as additional garnishes.