In the latest of our Eat Thailand series, Sofie Lisby examines the process behind the country's most famous dish.
Not all Thai dishes are created equal and few have become as popular and widespread as Pad Thai. The story goes that it was invented in the early 1940s by then prime minister Plaek Phibunsongkhram in an effort to promote Thai nationalism. The result is a widely popular fried noodle dish that can be found anywhere from Lagos to Los Angeles.
While recipes vary from country to country and even within Thailand, some main components remain the same. Noodles are fried with tofu, bean sprouts, egg, chives and dried shrimp and flavoured with fish sauce and tamarind to create a slightly sweet, umami fried noodle dish.
Let's take a closer look...
Most commonly used for Pad Thai are so-called Chantaburi noodles, which are thin, flat rice noodles that, when cooked, become sticky and chewy. Made in Chantaburi province from freshly ground rice flour, they are later dried in the sun.
At many Pad Thai restaurants, the dish is served with large, fresh prawns, either from the river or the ocean. Ocean prawns are likely to come from Rayong province, where fishermen catch them in the northern Gulf of Thailand.
These are added for their umami flavour. They come in many shapes and sizes but for Pad Thai, they’re usually smaller than a grain of rice. Factories can be found in many parts of Thailand but they’re generally located along the coast in provinces like Rayong, Chumpon or Surat Thani. The shrimp are laid out on large nets to dry in the sun.
While nowadays relatively rare, some restaurants still produce their own fish sauce or use smaller manufacturers, as opposed to the large factories that produce the majority of fish sauce in Thailand today. Methods vary but fresh anchovies or other types of small fish are covered with salt and left to ferment outside in large, covered barrels for at least six to 12 months, oftentimes longer. If uncontaminated, the fish sauce will last for years.
To many the most significant ingredient in an authentic Pad Thai, tamarind paste is responsible for Pad Thai's characteristic tangy flavour. The paste is made by removing the pits and shells from tamarinds, leaving only the pulp behind. The pulp is then mixed with water to create a thick juice-like texture.
Before cooking, the noodles are soaked in cold water and can then be left to dry again before being added to the pan. Tofu, Chinese chives and pickled radish are cut into small pieces and bean sprouts are washed and prepared.
Practice makes perfect
At Bangkok's most famous Pad Thai restaurants, cooks are trained for several months before they're deemed ready to handle the woks. At places where the Pad Thai is wrapped in thin egg sheets, practice may take even longer.
Pad Thai is cooked in a large steel wok over gas or preferably over coal to add a certain smoky flavour to the finished dish. Dried shrimp, tamarind paste, fish sauce, palm sugar, tofu, noodles, chives, bean sprouts and other ingredients (depending on the recipe) are cooked over high heat in just a few minutes.
How it's eaten
Pad Thai is best eaten as soon as it's ready – to avoid the noodles becoming too sticky or soaking up the juices to make a dry dish. Condiments typically include sugar, vinegar, chilli, lime, crushed peanuts and fresh chives. Mix it all up to create just the right balance of sweet, tangy and salty. Enjoy!