Pad Thai is probably the most famous item of Thai gastronomy. It is not only popular all over Thailand, it tends to make its way to the heart of most people who taste it, all around the world. Let’s see what is behind the sweeping success of this dish.
Pad Thai tends to be the first introductory dish to Thai cuisine thanks to the fact that the dish has a particular taste, it balances well the salty, sour and sweet flavours characteristic to Thai food and it is not too spicy. It evokes an exotic cuisine without being unusually strong, sharp or spicy. In my view it expresses the gentle nature of the people of Thailand and it represents well the Thai take on life itself. It’s delicious, light and flavourful.
The base of the dish contains rice noodles, which are stir-fried with various ingredients. The combination of these ingredients creates the unique flavours of Pad Thai. The original recipe contains tamarind, palm sugar, eggs, garlic, salted radish, tofu, bean sprouts, peanuts, prawns, chicken and pork as well as fish and soy sauce. Nonetheless, the recipe is tweaked according to region and taste; and basically every cook interprets Pad Thai in a slightly different way. To cook a good Pad Thai, one must feel the dish. That’s why one simply cannot find the same Pad Thai in two different places, even though it is served at thousands of food stalls, eateries and households on a regular basis. Still, the characteristic flavours can be found in every single Pad Thai. This diversity makes it extremely exciting and truly Thai.
Although the dish is known as “Pad Thai”, it has a “proper” name, i.e. “Kway Teow Pad Thai”, which simply means stir-fried rice noodles in Thai-style. Although it is the flagship dish of Thai gastronomy, Pad Thai probably originates in China as the term “Kway Teow” refers to rice noodles in Chinese. According to food historians, noodles hail from China and the cooking style of stir-frying is of Chinese origin, too. So, the basic characteristics of Pad Thai may originate from China’s southwestern region. Nonetheless, the distinct flavour and the texture of Pad Thai makes it different to any other Chinese noodle dish.
Although the dish is very delicious, there is something other than just its flavour that accounts for its widespread popularity. Namely, a political decision made by Prime Minister and Field Marshall Plaek Phibunsongkhram aka Phibun. This gentleman was behind the original recipe of Pad Thai and what’s more, he was the driving force behind making it known and popular among the Thai people. Phibun was the Prime Minister of Thailand between 1938 and 1944 and between 1948 and 1957. He renamed the country from Siam to Thailand, which literally means “The Land of the Free”. He introduced various measures to modernise the country and to strengthen its economy.
The introduction of Pad Thai into the country took place during the Second World War. It was probably invented in Phibun’s own household with the aim of making the diet of the poor more nutritious, compared to the plain rice they ate with chilli paste, salt and green leaves. Also, the dish was promoted as a sanitary food due to the cooking method, using stir frying at high temperatures. It was also very cheap, at that time a portion cost no more than 1 Baht (which was equivalent to a few pennies). The objective of inventing a national Thai dish also had the aim of boosting the national pride of the Thai as it was different to the Chinese noodle dishes that were available in Thailand at that time. Further, it helped local farmers sell their produce to wheeled food-stalls in Bangkok, sponsored by the government, which specialised in making the new dish, based on the original Pad Thai recipe. These mobile food stalls made the dish widely available in Bangkok and thanks to its delicious taste and cheap price, it quickly set off on the path toward worldwide fame.
If you are Thai, you may feel the dish and can create a perfect one without any recipe. For beginners, though, the following recipe by Jill Dupleix from BBC Food – and tweaked by myself to suit vegetarians – is good guidance and a starting point.
- 100g dried rice stick noodles
- 3 tbsp vegetable oil
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten
- 2 garlic cloves, smashed
- 200g tofu chopped up to cubes or slices
- 100g bean sprouts, rinsed
- 2 spring onion greens, chopped into 3cm/1in lengths
- 3 tbsp soy sauce
- 2 tbsp lime juice
- ½ tsp dried chilli flakes or cayenne
- 1 tbsp palm sugar (palm sugar is preferred but you may replace it with brown sugar)
- 2 tbsp roasted peanuts, lightly crushed
- 2 tbsp coriander sprigs or dry coriander according to taste
- 1 lime, quartered for garnish
- Cover the noodles with boiling water and leave for 15 minutes or until al dente. Rinse in cold water and drain well, then use 1 tsp of oil to coat your hands and run them through the noodles to help prevent sticking.
- To make the omelette, heat 1 tbsp of the oil in a wok and swirl to coat the surface. Pour in the beaten eggs and swirl to make a very thin omelette. Run a knife around the edge, turn out, slice into strips and set aside. (If you are vegan, you may leave the eggs out entirely. The dish will taste different and it will no longer be a Pad Thai, but you will still get a decent Asian-style noodle dish.)
- To cook the noodles, add remaining oil to the wok and heat. Add the garlic and the tofu and toss over high heat.
- Add the noodles, omelette strips, bean sprouts, spring onions, soy sauce, lime juice, chilli and sugar, tossing constantly over high heat until it combines well.
- To serve, scatter with crushed peanuts, coriander leaves and quartered limes.
I hope you enjoy trying the dish. In the Comments below, let us know if you have any favourite Thai dishes and what it is about them that make them so appealing!