Pad thai (ผัดไทย) is probably the most famous Thai dish around the world but it is also one of the least traditional dishes in Thai cuisine.
Plaek Phibunsongkhram or simply Phibun as he was called in the West, is the name of the Prime Minister and dictator of the Thai state who ruled the country during the Second World War but also until 1957.
Why talk about a dictator on a pad thai recipe post? Because Phibun was apparently as good as a military strategist as a cook!
Yes, this is probably the first time that we feature a dish created by a dictator. Perhaps we will soon consider a special on Adolf’s, Benito’s and Saddam’s favorite dishes? An idea to explore…
Phibun came to power at the dawn of the Second World War. He is credited with the change of name of the country from Siam to Thailand (land of the Thais or free). During his mandate, particularly his first term during the second world war, Phibun also contributed to the modernization of Thailand. He asked that Thais dress like Westerners. He demanded that the Thais speak the national language and not the many dialects that were still spoken in the country. He forced them to learn the new national anthem and he ordered that forks and spoons be used as Thais traditionally ate with their hands.
During his first term from 1938 to 1944, the country went through a tough economic period. Phibun decided to create and popularize a dish with affordable ingredients that could feed his people since rice, Thai cuisine’s main staple, was quite expensive for the poorest. The use of rice noodles instead of rice would reduce its domestic consumption and allow the country to dispose of larger amounts for export and therefore help with the economic recovery.
Thus, pad Thai was born. Pad thai which is also known by its full name kway teow pad Thai, is a fried rice noodles dish with varied ingredients but also unique flavors.
The irony of this dish is that it is heavily influenced by Chinese cuisine. Kway teow actually means fried noodles. Yes, irony since Phibun, himself of Chinese descent, used to compare Chinese immigrants to Jews in Nazi Germany during the Second World War. So he made every effort to distance Thailand from this legacy and even signed an alliance with the Japanese, which people initially criticized in between his two terms.
Fraudulent elections and a coup d’etat forced Phibun into exile in Japan in 1958, where he died a few years later in 1964.
But his legacy lived on through his popular dish which probably helped to familiarize westerners with Thai cuisine. since its inception, pad Thai has been relegated to a street food dish served by hawkers across the country. Indeed, you will never see pad Thai in traditional restaurants in the Siamese state. However, this dish is probably THE reference dish when it comes to Thai cuisine in every Thai restaurant outside the country.
It contains simple ingredients that, when combined, bring interesting flavors to this unique dish.
Indeed, sour, salty and sweet flavors are represented in this dish and the art of this dish lies in the clever combination of ingredients such as fish sauce, tamarind and palm sugar but also dried shrimp and pickled turnip that are occasionally used in some recipes. Peanuts and bean sprouts provide crunchiness to the dish.
I have cooked pad Thai quite regularly in recent years. Not being a big fan of Thai curries that are more soupy than traditional Indian curries, I almost always order the national dish when I go to Thai restaurants.
The last time I cooked pad Thai was when my dad came to visit with his Cambodian friends Miva and Moni as well as Christine. How proud I was to praises by Asian cuisine experts. Pad Thai is probably my favorite Asian dish… after Indian cuisine of course, which is unbeatable in my eyes. Try to make pad Thai as soon as you can, especially if you have never tasted it.
A few tips for a successful pad Thai:
– Ideally use a large cast iron skillet to help with the evaporation of noodles
– Use noodles called sen lek that are traditionally used for pad Thai. They are usually about 3 mm or ⅛ inch wide.
– Do not cook more than one or two servings at a time as the noodles would not cook uniformly and the result would be disastrous.
– Do not soak the noodles in hot water, but rather cold or room temperature water. Soaking in hot water would unnecessarily cook the noodles while they need to be al dente.
– You can prepare the pad Thai sauce beforehand. This allows you to adjust the flavors instead of adding fish sauce, tamarind and palm sugar as you are cooking your pad Thai. However, the benefit of adding these ingredients during cooking is that you can adjust the flavors according to your taste. It is a matter of habit.
Recipe of Pad Thai
Preparation Time: 30 minutes
Cooking Time: 20 minutes
- 4 oz. Thai rice noodles (sen lek or เส้นเล็ก)
1 cup bean sprouts
6 Chinese chives or scallions
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons tamarind concentrate
2 tablespoons palm sugar
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 tablespoon pickled turnip (optional)
1/2 cup extra firm tofu
2 tablespoons peanut, crushed
1/2 teaspoon crushed chili
3 cloves garlic, minced
4 teaspoons fish sauce (namh pla or น้ำปลา)
Start by soaking the dry noodles in water at room temperature while preparing the other ingredients, about 30 minutes.
The noodles should end up being soft but not mushy.
Roast the peanuts in a pan without oil for a few minutes.
Cut tofu into thin 1-inch strips.
Fry the tofu separately in a pan with a little oil until golden brown.
Cut Chinese chives into 1-inch strips diagonally.
Set aside a few pieces of fresh chive for garnish.
Rinse bean sprouts and keep half for garnish.
Heat cast iron skillet or heavy bottomed pan over high heat and add vegetable oil.
Add shallot, pickled turnip (optional), garlic and tofu and stir until they begin to brown.
Drain noodles and add to the skillet. Stir quickly to prevent the noodles from sticking.
Add the tamarind concentrate, palm sugar, fish sauce and chili. Stir.
Keep on high heat so that the liquid evaporates.
Make room for the egg by pushing the noodles to the sides of the pan.
Break the egg in the middle of the pan and stir until it is almost cooked.
Stir the egg in the noodles. The noodles should be soft and tender.
If the noodles are too hard and undercooked, add a little water.
Add shrimps and stir. Sprinkle with pepper.
Add the bean sprouts and chives and stir.
Pour the mixture on a serving platter and sprinkle with crushed chili and peanuts.
Serve hot with a wedge of lime on the side, and fresh Chinese chives and bean sprouts on top.
Add Sambal or crushed chili to spice it up.