Mutable Noodles: Pad Thai

There is no single definative pad thai recipe.

Any Thai cookbook worth consulting will tell you that.

Pad thai, probably the most well-known and loved Thai dish in the United States, is a street-stall food that is infinately variable in flavor, ingredients and condiments. The one constant is that it involves a very hot wok, chiles and either pre-soaked dry rice noodles or fresh, pliable rice noodles.

Su-Mei Yu, author of Cracking The Coconut: Authentic Thai Home Cooking says (on page 298) “Over the past several years, I’ve learned to make padd thai from vendors at different stalls all over Thailand and appreciate its versatility. Each version is slightly different, and each is wonderful. Padd thai is a dish dictated soley by the wishes of the customers….”

“I have read reviews of Bay Area Thai restaurants that rate them by the quality of thier pad thai; this is amusing to me, because it is like judging fine American restaurants by the quality of their hamburgers,” writes Kasma Loha Unchit in It Rains Fishes (page 199). She later notes that while many American Thai restaurants serve the dish doused in ketchup, she eschews that popular condiment and instead advises the use of semi-sweet black Thai soy sauce.

Victor Sodsook writes in True Thai, that “Everybody loves phat Thai. Many Americans have told me that their first taste of this sweet and sour, spicy peanutty noodle stir fry is what got them hooked on Thai cuisine…Phat Thai is always customized to suit your taste” (page 114).

Because the one thing that Thai cookbook authors seem to agree on is that there is no one correct way to make pad thai, I have come up with a theory, and it goes thus: there are as many versions of pad thai as there are people who cook Thai food in the world.

There are also a couple of corollaries to this theory. The first one is that often, it is the very first pad thai that one eats which imprints itself upon the diner’s mind and tastebuds as -the- best, foremost and ultimate pad thai, and for the rest of their lives, the eater will seek pad thai that tastes just like that first bowl. This search is often in vain, because as we now have come to understand, there are as many versions of pad thai as there are Thai cook.

The second corollary is that I have personally, very seldom, met a serving of pad thai that I have not liked.

There are exceptions to that second corollary. I don’t tend to like overly sweet pad thai, nor am I fond of the ones that taste of ketchup. But, if you leave out the excess sugar and ketchup, I pretty much don’t care what else goes in.

Eggs? Great. Shrimp? Primo. Mushrooms? Right on. Pressed tofu? Love it. Chicken? Oh, yeah. Bean sprouts? Can I have more? Fresh chiles? Super. Dried chile flakes? Wonderful. Chile sauce with the rooster on the bottle? Oh, hell yes, pass me some of that good shit, and I’ll put some more in, thank you.

I like it with chewy noodles. I like it with softer noodles. I like it doused in crushed peanuts, or just lightly sprinkled with them. I like it with cilantro, and I love it with Thai basil. Tamarind is great, and so is lime juice, but I think, best of all, is a little of both.

Fish sauce–well, it always has fish sauce, but the first version I had also had oyster sauce in it, too, so when I make it, oyster sauce always shows up at the end of the cooking process.

I guess that my main point in all of this is to get folks to realize that there is no one “right” way to make pad thai. There are thousands of “right” ways, all of them pretty darned good.

And, for those who have faithfully read this far in my declaration of love for the rice noodles–here is how I make pad thai, when I make it this way. It may not be the way anyone else makes it, and it changes depending on what ingredients I have on hand and who is going to be eating it with me, but the basics are pretty much the same every time.

Unless, of course, I change them.

Barbara’s Ever-Changing Pad Thai

Ingredients:

3 tablespoons peanut oil
1 2” cube of fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
5 large cloves fresh garlic, peeled
3-5 shallots, peeled and cut into halves
2 Thai dragon chiles, or 3-5 Thai bird chiles (this is all to taste)
1/4-1 teaspoon red chile flakes (optional)
1 boneless, skinless chicken breast, sliced paper thin
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1/2 tablespoon cornstarch6-10 fresh shiitake mushrooms, stems removed, caps thinly sliced
1 pkg 1/4″ thick rice noodles, soaked in warm water until softened, and drained
Fish sauce
1/2 cup chicken broth
1 1/2 tablespoons tamarind concentrate
1-3 teaspoons raw sugar or palm sugar–to taste
3 tbsp. oyster sauce (Amoy Premium with Scallops is -really- stellar in this)
zest and juice of one lime
1 bunch holy basil or regular basil, leaves removed from stems
½ bunch cilantro, leaves removed from stems
1 bunch scallion tops (green part) cut diagonally into 1” pieces
1/2 cup unsalted roasted peanuts, lightly crushed

Method:

In a food processor, grind ginger, garlic, chiles, chile flakes and shallots into a paste. (The Sumeet grinder rocks at this function.)

Toss and marinate chicken in fish sauce and cornstarch for at least twenty minutes.

Heat wok large enough to hold everything. When it is smoking, add oil, heat for a few more seconds, then add paste, and stir and fry about one minute. Add chicken and stir and fry until the most of the pink is gone. Add mushrooms, then fish sauce to taste.

Add rice noodles, and a bit more oil of necessary. Stir and fry until the noodles become a bit limp, watching that they don’t stick too much to the bottom. Add more fish sauce, the broth and tamarind concentrate, and simmer a bit, stirring the noodles until they soften nicely.

Add the oyster sauce stirring to combine.

Add juice of lime, lime zest and herbs, stirring just until herbs and scallion tops wilt.

Sprinkle with peanuts, stir once more and serve.

12 Comments

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  1. Hi Barbara – Several years back, I became obsessed with making Pad Thai, and after several attempts made something that tasted darn good, and without much oil! But the darn recipe was as long as my arm! I’ll dig it up, and try it again one day. I also felt bad, because the Pad Thai turned out best when I used a touch of ketchup along with the Tamarind Pulp.

    Comment by Kirk — January 3, 2006 #

  2. There is a reason yours tasted better with the ketchup, Kirk–which I will be covering in a series of posts this week.

    In my case, I use the oyster sauce in place of the ketchup–it performs the exact same function, but without adding as much sweetness to the dish. (That, of course, depends on which brand of oyster sauce one uses–some of them are mostly sugar. Ick.)

    Yeah, good pad thai tends to have a huge ingredient list. Actually, lots of Thai dishes have long ingredient lists–like Indian dishes, but they taste so good and are not so hard to make as all that, so it doesn’t much matter.

    That is, if you like to cook. If you don’t like to cook, then it is probably better to eat out….

    Comment by Barbara — January 3, 2006 #

  3. I agree that one wants pad Thai to be as it was the first time. Mine was a deep red color, quite oily, and sweet. Sadly, the restuarant where I ate my first pad Thai has gone way downhill and their food no longer tastes as it once did. I have tried to duplicate their noodles but without ever really coming close. Eventually I quit and decided that Thai would be one kind of food I just don’t try to cook. Reading your post makes me want to try again.

    Without ketchup I wonder how to get the deep red that I desire? I think my palate isn’t prepared for the quantity of chile peppers it would take to make it that red and the restaurant dish I remember wasn’t super hot. Maybe I’m misremembering and it wasn’t as red as I think it was.

    Years later I used to eat pad Thai several times a week from a food cart on the campus of the University of Wisconsin and I became friendly with the proprietor (who also owns a Thai restaurant, or used to) and her daughter. They told me how they make pad Thai and swore by using pad Thai sauce from a jar. I tried that a few times and always found that the dish still needed improving. They also insisted that the dish shouldn’t be made with peanut oil. Wrong flavor, they said. I’m doubtful of that too. The lesson of theirs that I did take to heart was that the dish takes well to condiments. I love it served with peanuts, chile flakes, hot sauce, scallions, cilantro, bean sprouts, and lime wedges on the side for each diner to take as they like. The daughter told me, “Thai food is all about the condiments.” She also suggested that I use the red rooster sriracha as a shrimp cocktail sauce, all by itself, which would knock my socks off.

    Anyhow, thanks for the recipe. I will now keep my eye out for Amoy oyster sauce.

    Comment by mzn — January 3, 2006 #

  4. If you are pretty sure that the pad thai your palate longs for had ketchup in it, I would go ahead and use it, Michael. The only other trick I can think of to get the right color without killing yourself with heat is one borrowed from Indian cookery–use sweet paprika powder to make it brick red.

    I realized just this morning, as I was running around the house gathering materials to take some photographs that I do not have any ketchup in the house. That is how infrequently I use it.

    I guess I should pick up a bottle. I should also probably pick up some worchestershire sauce–my kitchen is also lacking in that universal Western condiment….

    Yes, your Thai informants were correct–the dish is all about condiments, and when I plan to make pad thai (which last night, was a spur of the moment sort of “oh, crap, what the heck am I going to cook dor dinner” sort of deal), I make certain to have the sriracha (known in this house as “The Sacred Rooster Sauce”), bean sprouts and lots of limes. Zak doesn’t love bean sprouts, but Morganna and I do, and we all love the Rooster and limes. Shredded preserved Thai radish is apparently traditional, but I have never had it served to me, so have not tasted it. The next time I am at a store that caters heavily to Thai folks, I will see if I can find it and give it a shot.

    Comment by Barbara — January 3, 2006 #

  5. Barbara – your posting the pad thai recipe has made a couple of people in my life very happy. Went grocery shopping on Thursday night to one of our oriental stores spending so much delightful time looking at everything they had to nudge me to the cash register and out the door so they could close for the evening. Dinner was Friday night. A couple of changes was adding fresh oyster mushrooms in addition to the shiitake, more chicken because the package of rice noodles must be double the size you were using (had noddles everywhere). Also added some green beans, a bit of red bell pepper for color and 2 carrots cut up. Totally forgot about the basil and will have to add that next time. One person felt the juice of 1 whole lime was too much so will use 1/2 a lime next time and will serve a bowl of lime wedges for those of us that want more. Next time will try pork in place of chicken. Thank you for making a lovely evening possible.

    Comment by Maureen — January 8, 2006 #

  6. I am glad that your family liked it! I once made an all mushroom and dried spiced tofu pad thai for myself that was out of this world–I think you can add an infinite variety of mushrooms to the dish to only good effect.

    No–the size of package is likely the same–we just eat mostly noodles in ours! You can add quite a bit more vegetables and meat into that recipe and feed more people. (We are serious carb lovers in this house.)

    I love red bell pepper and carrot in mine, too–but green beans get vetoed by Morganna. She only likes them cooked certain ways. But, I bet they would taste delicious.

    Try it sometime with the classic bean sprouts topping it after it is cooked–that is great. When I plan to cook pad thai, I will go out and buy bean sprouts so Morganna and I can have them on top. They add a crispy, juicy fresh crunch that is hard to beat.

    I am not surprised someone thought my version was too sour. All of us love tart foods–when we get pho in a restaurant we always ask for extra limes. Otherwise, we fight over the ones they bring out!

    Remember–it is a dish that is infinitely variable–play with it, change it and riff off of it until it is tweaked to your family’s taste.

    Comment by Barbara — January 8, 2006 #

  7. You know what? Pad Thai was invent for about 50 years ago by the leader of the military goverment back in the old time. The invent of pad thai is because back in 50 years ago many people ate only Noodle which is not originally Thai Food. So the goverment in that time invented Pad Thai for the nationalism campaign.

    Comment by japanom — June 3, 2007 #

  8. I have to say for someone to leave basil out of thier Pad thai would be a crime. I also use peanut butter in mine, and substitute any fish sauce or ketchup with the “sacred rooster sauce”. It adds color and spice without sweetness. Either way, the garlic, basil and peanut mix quite well. Plus after a good marinade time in soy and, ginger, and other ingredients, I grill the chicken and marry the two after the noodles are done. I have people begging to come over for this recipie.
    Thank you for the insite on the pad thai recipie Barbara. Now i dont feel quite so unique with mine though.

    Comment by Viking — October 31, 2007 #

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    Pingback by Exploding Acorns and Mutable Noodles – On Plant Love and Noble Laureate Chefs « Mutable Matter — December 2, 2007 #

  10. You’re absolutely correct. Padd Thai is like meatloaf, you learn to love it one way and nothing else is as good. On that note, I wanted to ask you for advice. My favorite Padd Thai isn’t saucy. It seems to have more dry seasonings. Any advice on how to duplicate it?
    Thanks!

    Comment by Jenny — April 16, 2008 #

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