Under the Thai Umbrella

Pad Thai

Pad Thai

Pad Thai is the most misunderstood noodle.

Its best incarnations are difficult to find outside of Thailand, even as the basic ingredients are now readily available abroad. I think back to the Pad Thais of my childhood, freshly made at a Bangkok street stall and packaged to go in banana leaves and a newspaper outer layer. A good Pad Thai slowly reveals itself: sweetness with bursts of salty and tart, depending on what is being bitten—preserved radishes, dried prawns, and bits of peanut or omelet. Here in the U.S., Pad Thai usually arrives a pile of noodles plated in a puddle of oil. Many taste as sweet as a lollipop and come stained red by ketchup.

Yet it’s not entirely fair to complain about the authenticity of Pad Thai. It’s the noodle that’s the most Thai, and at the same time, the least. Before the 1940s, Pad Thai didn’t exist as a common dish. Its birth and popularity came out of the nationalist campaign of Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsongkram, one of the revolutionary figures who in 1932 pushed Thailand out of an absolute monarchy and into a Game of Thrones-style democracy, where coups and counter-coups have become the norm.

In between surviving multiple point-blank-range assassination attempts and a failed kidnapping in which he emerged alive from the burning wreckage of a battleship his own air force had just bombed, Pibulsongkram decided that Thailand needed noodles that would advance the country’s industry and economy. After all, he had already changed the name of country from Siam to Thailand as part of a series of mandates meant to shroud its people under a modernized Thai identity. Forks and spoons would be used instead of hands. More European-style clothing must be worn. Thai products should be preferred above all others. Pibulsongkram wanted to create a new Thai diet while making more rice products available for export. According to his son’s suppositions in the 2009 Gastronomica article “Finding Pad Thai,” the codified modern variant of Pad Thai may have originated in Pibulsongkram’s household, perhaps the devising of the family’s cook. Its recipe was disseminated throughout the country, and push carts were sent into the streets to make this newfangled on-the-go meal available to the masses. To eat Pad Thai would be a patriotic act. Thus was born the Volksnoodle for an emerging Thai nation-state.

The name Pad Thai, however, negates the considerable non-Thainess of the dish. Noodles were the domain of Chinese immigrants in Thailand, and pan-fried rice noodles like Pad Thai likely arrived with them hundreds of years ago when Ayutthaya had been the kingdom’s capital. The thin rice noodles used in making Pad Thai is also similar to Vietnamese noodles, like the ones used in making pho. It’s no coincidence that the Saen Chan noodle used in many Pad Thai recipes took its name from Chanthaburi, an eastern province close to Vietnam and Cambodia. Had Pibulsongkram been more purist about his nation-unifying dish, Pad Thai should have been a clump of rice smothered and fried with fiery Nam Prik chile paste, arguably the most Thai of all Thai food. His nationalist ideals of Thailand weren’t deeply rooted in reverence for the past; they were synthesized new from whatever was most expedient.

His choice of a noodle dish is all the more curious in light of his policies against the Chinese ethnic population—immigration quotas, bans on Chinese associations, and the seizing of Chinese businesses. Pibulsongkram had not only decided to curtail the growing Chinese influence in Thailand (China, at the time, sheltered his political rival) but also to subsume its culture under the Thai umbrella. He would later choose to ally with the U.S. in its nascent war against communism, and just a few decades later, GIs on R&R leave would be part of the first wave of Americans to taste Pad Thai.

It’s arguable that Pad Thai’s rise to popularity between then and now is a byproduct of its name. Although a minor dish in the universe of Thai food—something you are likely to order at a street market stall, not a respectable restaurant—Pad Thai has gained ambassadorial status around the world. Having been conferred the nation’s name under the Field Marshal, its inherent lack of spiciness makes for a friendly, disarming gateway dish. Pad Thai presents itself as different from noodles in the Chinese, Japanese, and Italian tradition, but it’s not entirely alien and unfamiliar. Within it are well charted territories: tamarind that recalls Indian cooking; fish sauce that, although more pungent, functions very much like Chinese soy sauce; palm sugar from the south and Malay states that gives it the universal taste of candy; and nearly everyone without the allergy loves the ground peanuts that, like the chile pepper now ubiquitous in Thai food, is a relatively new arrival from the New World.

And this is what I believe puts Pad Thai squarely in the realm of all things Thai: the balance of absorbed influences. The ideal Pad Thai sits in tenuous equilibrium between the forces of sweet, salty, and sour in its components; none can dominate any of the other. This very instinct of absorption and balance—so foundational to Thai thinking and, by natural extension, Thai food—allowed old Siam to escape formal colonial rule by yielding just enough privileges to the imperial powers of the time—England, France, Japan, and the U.S.—so that each had an interest in keeping Siam independent of the others’ ambitions.

Balance was perhaps also in the mind of Pibulsongkram after he visited England and the U.S. in 1955. His was a diplomatic tour to rally for aid against the spread of communism in Southeast Asia, a fight he knew he would likely lose if China’s and Russia’s plans for the region went unchecked. His last trip abroad had been in the 1920s, when he was sent on scholarship to the Artillery School at Fontainebleau and in Parisian cafes absorbed the heated discussions on politics and philosophy that would inform his future. Something during that trip must have brought back fond memories for the field marshall, because on returning to Bangkok, he created a free speech area modeled after the speaker’s corner in Hyde Park.

But equilibrium would not be his. Tens of thousands convened, and although Pibulsongkram would shutter the Hyde Park experiment, the grievances aired would grow into outright anger after dubious election results in 1958. In the aftermath, Pibulsongkam’s chief commander of the army—with rumored support from the CIA—seized power and forced him into exile, first in Cambodia, then in the U.S. and India, before finally settling in Japan. I found very little record of Pibulsongkram’s final years. In my imagination I see him hunched at a dining table, in front of him a plate of freshly made Pad Thai, the ingredients for which he would have had to work very hard to source in those years. He died at age 67 in 1964, but his noodle lives on.

Pitchaya Sudbanthad for TMN

Pad Thai Recipe

(Makes 2 to 3 servings)

Most of these ingredients should be available at a respectable Asian food market.

You should cook this in a decent-sized wok. If you don’t have one, get one already. The best carbon-steel, non-Teflon ones are less than $15, and after you season them, they’re good to go—you’ll use it for everything. if you’re still stubborn, fine, use a large pan, and see if your conscience won’t wake you up at night.

This is best done in individual batches of, say, 4 oz worth of noodles, adjusting the proportions of other ingredients and wiping the wok clean in between, but a large batch wouldn’t be the worst thing.

If you want to go totally vegetarian or avoid fish sauce, you can experiment on the umami end with some salty seasoning sauce like Maggi, but it is pretty much guaranteed to not taste as good. If you don’t have tamarind concentrate, you can use regular white vinegar as a substitute. And if you really have to have bit of that reddish color—this is unorthodox—add a half or whole teaspoon of paprika; it won’t be as bad as adding ketchup.

  • 8 ounces 4-5 mm dried flat rice noodles
  • Warm water
  • 3 tablespoons palm sugar
  • 2 tablespoons liquid tamarind concentrate mixed with 2 tablespoons water
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce
  • 2 tablespoons red shallots
  • 3 eggs
  • 12 medium-to-large tail-on shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 2 tablespoons preserved turnip
  • 2 tablespoons dried prawns
  • 1/2 cup firm tofu, preferably marinated or smoked
  • Vegetable oil
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons peanuts
  • 1 fistful mung bean sprouts
  • 2 tablespoons Chinese chives, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • Scallions for garnish
  • Lime wedges for serving
  1. Soak noodles in warm, not hot, water for 20 to 25 minutes until softer but not mushy. If in doubt, under soak, as you can always hydrate them more during the cooking process.
  2. In the meantime, get all your ingredients ready in small bowls. Dissolve palm sugar in tamarind concentrate, water, and fish sauce. Roughly dice the shallots and set aside. Crack the eggs into a bowl and whisk them lightly. Cut the tofu into rectangles 1/8-inch thick, roughly chop the preserved turnip, and add them to a bowl with the dried prawns and fresh shrimp. Crush the peanuts into granules in a mortar and pestle or food processor and set aside.
  3. For the next stir-frying steps, go two-handed. Use two spatulas to stir everything. You’ll be able to pick up, separate, fold, and toss the noodles around so much more easily.  
  4. Heat a few tablespoons of oil in the wok at medium heat. When hot, throw in red shallots, and fry until nicely colored and fragrant. Then turn the heat to high. Don’t burn anything, all right?
  5. Once the pan is now nice and hot, throw in noodles (drained) and keep on stirring. Preferably, right before cooking, you can dunk noodles in boiling water for 10 seconds with a bamboo ladled strainer (helps mitigate stickiness and clumping, but if not, it’s OK).
  6. Add palm sugar, tamarind, and fish sauce mixture. Stir the noodles until the mixture is evenly distributed.
  7. Add dried prawns, tofu, preserved turnips, and fresh shrimp, and stir again.
  8. If noodles are getting dry, add water in scant 1/4-cup increments. Noodles should take anywhere from a few minutes to 5 -10 minutes cook, depending on the size of the batch and your stove’s firepower. Just take a strand out to taste and make sure it’s not hard or super chewy. You’ve had Pad Thai before; you know when it’s about right. The noodles should attain a light brown color as the sugar caramelizes.
  9. Set the noodles to one side of the wok. Add a tablespoon of oil, and then toss in the eggs. Before they are further cooked, flop the noodles onto them and toss around to distribute the eggs.
  10. Add ground peanuts and stir all over. Taste for flavor for balance, the most important aspect of a well made Pad Thai. You can adjust the profile by adding more regular sugar, fish sauce, a squeeze of lime juice, or vinegar.
  11. When almost done, add Chinese chives and stir-fry for a minute more. You can either pour this onto a waiting mound of plated bean sprouts and or add the sprouts now and turn off the heat and then toss the whole thing around, your choice.
  12. Plate with lime slice and piece of scallion. If you want to make it fancy and old-school, add banana flowers cut in lengthwise wedges to be nibbled along. To top this, serve it all in a basket made from fresh banana leaves. Good luck with that.