It has been called Thailand’s calling card to the rest of the world and if you love the flavors of Thai cuisine as much as I do, Pad Thai or Phat Thai as it is also known, needs little introduction. Listed as one of the top ten most popular dishes in American/Thai restaurants, it is the measuring stick I use to judge the overall quality of eating establishments specializing in the culinary pleasures of that part of the world. Commonly served as a street food and at casual local eateries in Thailand, it is, in simple terms, a stir-fried noodle dish. There are many variations of this classic but most often it is made with soaked dried rice noodles, tossed with eggs and flavored with a sauce made with tamarind, fish sauce, garlic, red chili pepper, palm sugar, and lime. The juxtaposition of the hot, sour, salty, sweet flavors is what makes this cuisine so distinct. Often there is a choice of proteins including cubed firm tofu, shrimp, chicken or crab. On occasion there might be a combination of these.
The good news is, you can reproduce this wonderful dish in your very own kitchen with just a few specialty ingredients, available in many supermarket ethnic sections. Let’s break it down by the flavor profile present in all Thai preparations. Whether you like it five alarm or mild, a bit of heat is required. This can be achieved using the fiery Thai chilies sliced thin with or without the seeds, crushed red pepper flakes (a staple in my spice cupboard), sriracha hot chili sauce, or sambal oelek (ground fresh chili paste) which is what I used for my recipe. Sour is achieved by incorporating citrus in the form of lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, or lime or lemon zest and/or juice. Salty is the next thing to address. Traditionally, this comes from the use of fish sauce. Some of you may be put off by this but trust me, if you desire authentic flavor this is an essential ingredient. Fish sauce is to Thai cuisine as soy sauce is to Chinese. If you absolutely must, you can use soy sauce as a substitute but it will not be the same. Tamarind has a strong presence in many preparations. Also known as the Indian date, it is the fruit pod of a tall shade tree native to Asia, northern Africa, and widely grown in India. Found as a paste or concentrate, the flavor is reminiscent of lemons, apricots, and dates. That said, it provides both a sour and sweet component. Another source for sweetness is palm sugar. If you can’t find it, a light brown sugar makes a good substitute. Do not over complicate this in your mind. As I mentioned before most of these ingredients can be found in larger grocery markets or there are more common products that can be substituted. I will say this, however, once you have a few of these specialty items in your pantry, they will open the door to making many wonderful Thai dishes. The noodles used for today’s feature are flat rice noodles. They come in widths, small, medium or large. I use the medium width but you can use whatever pleases you.
Here’s how it goes down.
PAD THAI Serves 4
Recipe by Jeanne Raffetto Tentis
½ lb rice stick noodles
1/3 c warm water
1/3 c tamarind paste or liquid concentrate
¼ c fish sauce
2 T sugar
3 T fresh lime juice
½ c oil, peanut or other neutral cooking oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ lb boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into strips, or protein of choice
2 eggs, slightly beaten
1/3 c roasted peanuts, chopped fine
1 c bean sprouts (I usually skip these because my husband thinks they taste like dirt. They are, however, traditional)
2 scallions, cut in 1 inch pieces
2 t ground chili paste (to taste) or substitute ½ t cayenne pepper or chili oil
1 lime, quartered for garnish
Cilantro for garnish
Use a wok or very large fry pan.
Soak noodles in hot water for half an hour or until they are soft and pliable, drain.
Combine in a small bowl the tamarind, water, fish sauce, sugar, and lime juice. Stir well until sugar is dissolved. Heat oil in wok until very hot. Add minced garlic and chili paste, sauté about 30 seconds, being careful not to burn. Add the chicken and cook for 2 minutes, stirring frequently.
Drop eggs into the wok and let cook without stirring for one minute. Add noodles, and stir whole mixture for one minute so that eggs and noodles are folded up from the bottom. Pour in liquid and stir for two minutes. Add two-thirds of the peanuts, scallions and bean sprouts. Toss lightly. Transfer to dish. Garnish with lime wedges and cilantro.
This is one of my favorite things to make and eat. It is gluten-free and can easily be made vegetarian. If making ethnic foods intimidate you, I suggest you start with this recipe. It is quick and easy and once you are familiar with the ingredients you will sail through like a pro. A couple of books I recommend are True Thai by Victor Sodook and Hot Sour Salty Sweet by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. The first one especially has recipes that are easy to follow and a great glossary of ingredients and places where you can order them if necessary. If you have a strong interest in Southeast Asia, its culture and food, the second one will take you on an enriching journey.
I will leave you with this and wishes for blessings this fine spring day. Regardless of whether you choose Thai, I urge you to discover the world through food and keep spreading the love, one dish at a time. Sending culinary love from my kitchen to yours. Jeanne