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Pad Thai Origin & Variations

Kasma Loha-unchit, November 26th, 2009

The Origin and Making of Pad Thai

I don’t really know how pad Thai became the most famous of Thai foods in America. To me, it is but one of many quick fast foods, with the best served by noodle carts, inexpensive sidewalk eateries, and small, nondescript mom-and-pop noodle shops, rather than fine restaurants, in the cities and towns of Thailand. I always find it amusing when restaurant reviewers judge the quality of a Thai restaurant by the quality of its pad Thai, as noodles can hardly take claim as lying at the heart of my country’s cuisine.

Making Pad Thai

Making pad Thai

In fact, its name literally means “Thai-style stir-fried noodles,” and for a dish to be so named in its own country clearly suggests an origin that isn’t Thai. Indeed, noodle cookery in most Southeast Asian countries was introduced by the wave of immigrants from southern China settling in the region the past century. They brought with them rice noodles and their ways of cooking them.

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

During the recession following World War II, the post-war government of Field Marshall Pibul, desperate in its efforts to revive the Thai economy, looked for ways to stem the massive tide of unemployment. Among the occupations the government aggressively promoted to give the populace a way to earn a living was the production of rice noodles and the operation of noodle shops. Detailed instructions on how to make the noodles and recipes were printed and distributed all around the country. From these efforts, rice noodles became firmly rooted in the country and have since become a widespread staple food.

Pad Thai, to go

Pad Thai, to go

The ethnic Chinese had good business sense, survival skills and entrepreneurial spirit. Seeing how the Thai people were very fond of the combination of hot, sour, sweet and salty flavors, they added these to their stir-fried noodle dishes and gave it a fusion name, much like Western chefs today are naming their dishes Thai this or Thai that on their East-West menus.

Back home, there are as many ways to make pad Thai as there are cooks, geographical regions, moods, and creative entrepreneurial spirit. The Pad Thai recipe I used to teach in class is a basic traditional pad Thai recipe (if “traditional” is a word that can be applied to a fusion dish invented in relatively modern times), combining the hot, sour, sweet and salty flavors so characteristic of Thai cuisine. Variations can be made by changing the sources of these four flavors and adding personal touches to make each combination unique.

Pad Thai Dish

Pad Thai Ready at Or Tor Kor Market

For instance, instead of tamarind and palm sugar, vinegar and granulated sugar may be used; and instead of fish sauce, light or thin soy sauce may take its place. Some noodle stalls in Thailand use a sweetened black soy sauce in combination with sugar, and ground dried chillies made with darkly roasted whole dried chillies, producing pad thai with a very different color and flavor balance than what Americans have become accustomed to. More refined eateries focus on presentation, wrapping the cooked noodles inside egg like an omelette. (Also see The Spirit of Thai Cooking.)

Many American Thai restaurants use tomato ketchup, yielding reddish noodles coated with a thick gooey sauce, which has a flavor and color appealing to the American palate. Other restaurants use Sriracha bottled chilli sauce instead of ground dried chillies, resulting also in reddish noodles. My recipe yields noodles that are firm and chewy with the strands dry and separate (the way I like it), but if you prefer the soft and mushy texture of some restaurant noodles, precook the noodles in boiling water before stir-frying.

Kasma's Pad Thai

Pad Thai in Kasma’s Class

If you are one of those people in search of the ultimate pad Thai, surf the Web for a site dedicated solely to this noodle dish of humble, mixed origins, reportedly boasting a collection of over fifty recipes. After trying them out, you might just decide it’s time to move beyond pad Thai to other fabulous noodle dishes Southeast Asia has to offer.

Here’s a link to Kasma’s Pad Thai Recipe.

One of our first blog posts was Pad Thai at Or Tor Kor Market.

Here are a couple of those other “fabulous noodle dishes” to try:

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, November 2009.

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