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Pad Thai Origin & Variations

Kasma Loha-unchit, Thursday, 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.

Curried Noodles (Wednesday Photo)

Michael Babcock, Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

Chiang Mai Curried Noodles (Kao Soi)

Curried Noodles

Curried Noodles

The best Thai food I’ve ever had outside of Thailand is in my own kitchen. This delectable-looking bowl of Chiang Mai Style Curried Noodles was produced by Kasma’s cooking students in her Advanced Set B class. It’s as good as any kao soi I’ve ever eaten in Thailand. I do recognize that I’m a very lucky man.

Check out Kasma’s recipe for Chiang Mai-Style Curried Noodles as well as her article on Northern-Style noodles.

The Wednesday Photo is a new picture  each week highlighting something of interest in Thailand. Click on the picture to see a larger version.

Noodle Shop Sign (Wednesday Photo)

Michael Babcock, Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

Noodle Soup, No Noodles

Noodle Soup Sign

Noodle Soup Sign

Traveling in Thailand, it’s a real advantage to be able to read Thai, particularly at restaurants. When I was teaching myself how to read, I got a menu from one of our favorite restaurants – My Choice, in Bangkok – and learned how to read all the dishes. If nothing else, I could order food.

This sign is a good example of why. The second item down is “soup from a noodle shop without noodle.” In essence, noodle soup without the noodles. In Thai it would be called gao lao and is a perfectly good option – broth and the other items, just no noodles.

The Wednesday Photo is a new picture  each week highlighting something of interest in Thailand. Click on the picture to see a larger version.

Pad Thai at Or Tor Kor Market

Michael Babcock, Saturday, April 4th, 2009

Outside of Or Tor Kor Market

Kasma always gets a chuckle when people talk about Pad Thai as “the signature dish of Thai cuisine.” In Thailand it is  just one of many noodle dishes, available mostly as a street food or at noodle shops and not particularly popular dish amongst Thais. It’s mainly a fast food. Kasma does have a very good recipe for Pad Thai and used to teach it in her Thai cooking classes.

Note: The official Thai spelling for this market is Or Tor Kor. This, unfortunately, leads most westerners to the wrong pronunciation. Aw Taw Kaw is closer to correct for pronouncing but less recognized.


Aisle at Or Tor Kor Market

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

The one place where I sometimes order Pad Thai for myself is at a stand at Or Tor Kor (or Aw Taw Kaw) Market (Talaat Or Tor Kor, in Thai) in Bangkok, which also happens to be one of our favorite markets in Thailand. Although Or Tor Kor is considered “high end” and the prices are higher than at other markets, the selection of food and the presentation makes it worth the extra few baht. I still find it very reasonable by United States standards. Our collection of Thailand market photos contains many pictures of Or Tor Kor Market.

Pad Thai Stall at Or Tor Kor

Pad Thai Stall at Or Tor Kor

Or Tor Kor market is very near to the well-known Chatuchak Weekend Market. You can get there via the MRT subway – get off at the Kamphaengpetch Road station. The first picture above shows the outside of the market from the street. If you go on a weekend, you can also enjoy Chatuchak, with it’s estimated 8,000 vendors selling any and everything you can imagine. We usually go to Or Tor Kor on a weekday because it can get very crowded indeed on a weekend.


Pad Thai Cook at Or Tor Kor Market

If you’re going to Or Tor Kor, eat lightly beforehand. As you browse the aisles you’ll see pre-cooked food such as grilled prawns, satay, sour sausage, shrimp cakes as well as numerous kanom (snacks) such as sticky rice and kanom krok (rice pancakes) and it will be hard to resist grazing. There are, however, numerous food stalls that cook food to order in the back of the market and many of them are worth a taste.

The stand with the delicious Pad Thai is back in the eating area towards the outside edge of the market. The third picture shows the stand with the stall number (11/40) visible in the background. I actually had taken and delivered pictures of the woman making the dish many times before I actually ordered the dish, though Kasma had been ordering it for her trip members for many years.


Pad Thai Ready to Eat

Most Pad Thai recipes call for egg, usually (as in Kasma’s Pad Thai recipe) scrambled lightly. This woman’s adds eggs in a different way – she uses them to make a covering for the noodles in the center, sort of a Pad Thai omelette, if you will. Kasma tells me that this presentation is relatively common in Thailand, particularly when Pad Thai is served in a restaurant. In fact, there are as many different Pad Thai recipes as there are cooks. (Kasma’s article on The Spirit of Thai Cooking talks a bit about how Thai dishes can vary a great deal depending on the cook.) It’s served (as you can see to the left) with a banana blossom, some scallions (underneath), fresh bean sprouts and a lime. The lime is squeezed over the noodles and the fresh ingredients are eaten along with it.


Pad Thai with Outer Egg Opened Up

As you can see, once you open up noodles it looks very delicious indeed. It bears little resemblance to some of the Pad Thai noodles you find in the states – it is savory and tasty and completely without ketchup!

For more information about the origins of Pad Thai, check out Kasma’s Pad Thai Notes and Pointers.

One other dish that the same woman makes is an mussel omelette. It is also very tasty (see picture below).

We’ve since done a whole blog post on Or Tor Kor Market in Bangkok.

And as of February 2020, she was still in the same spot and cooking up a storm. I believe her daughter is helping her now.

Note: When asking for directions or taking a cab to Or Tor Kor, be sure to refer to it as Dtalaht Aw Taw Kaw – the usual spelling is talaat, meaning market, but dtalaht is closer to the actual sound in Thai. (See our Note on Thai Spelling & Pronunciation.)

If you are taking a cab, make sure that the driver takes you to the correct market. There is also an Or Tor Kor Market (Dtalaat Aw Taw Kaw) on Sukhumvit Soi 105 (Soi Lasalle, pronounced Soi “La-sahn”) – it is not as interesting a market.

Mussel Omelette

Mussel Omelette On the Griddle

Written by Michael Babcock, April 2009. Updated May 2020.