Friday, April 14, 2017

Cuisine: Authentic Street-Style Pad Thai

In the spirit of Songkran (Thai New Year), or likely due to an overwhelming number of requests from friends just this week alone, I’ve finally decided to share my recipe for a world-renowned savory legend – Pad Thai. As I had mentioned before in my recipe post for Thai coconut sweet rice with banana (Khao Tom Mat), Thailand has always had a special place in the collective heart of my family. Our beloved Southeast Asian neighbor took my father’s family in as refugees fleeing from the ravages of the Vietnam War and became a new home, where I still have relatives residing today. And even before the fall of the South Vietnamese government, my grandfather proudly served as its Consul General in Bangkok. Like so many others, his favorite dish while doing diplomatic service was none other than Pad Thai. Needless to say, cooking this dish the proper way is essential, not only out of respect for Thai culture, but for the memory of my grandfather.

My grandfather's Thai Identification Card as a diplomat of South Vietnam

A growing number of foreign food “tutorial” videos have been popping up on social media sites over the past year, as if the timeless art of cooking were suddenly en vogue now in the US. Believe me, I’m absolutely for this idea, as I swear by food being the number one concept that can bridge any two (or more) cultures. What I’m not entirely for is when the creators of these videos simply get a dish wrong. And let me clarify that there is a very obvious difference between cuisine “fusion” and culinary “fuck-up”.

Pad Thai is one of those classic gems whose very name literally defines an entire nation  (“Thai-style fry”). It must remain pure - you simply can’t make ingredient substitutes nor screw around with its specific preparation. As the most popular dish in any Thai restaurant here in the US, I could spend hours describing to you how Pad Thai should be. But briefly for now, I will tell you how it shouldn’t. First, Pad Thai should NEVER be red or orange in color – the addition of ingredients like tomato paste or (God forbid) ketchup was originally intended to make the dish look more appealing to Americans, which is gastronomically blasphemous in itself. Second, the gravy should not contain soy sauce – suck it up and use legit fish sauce, even if it does  makes your kitchen smell, well, unpleasant (a reason why kitchens in Southeast Asia are traditionally outside of the house). Finally, Pad Thai should not have any substitute for or complete lack of tamarind – period.

In light of many slight variations, below is a standard recipe I learned from the streets of Bangkok as a kid hanging around the food stalls of Chatuchak market. Nothing is actually measured, so I did my best to estimate amounts. You may need to alter quantities based on taste preference. Understand that Pad Thai is a street food, which means it is a dish that is cooked quickly on the spot and must be eaten fresh from the wok. It is also better to make individual servings separately rather than attempt to cram more servings than your pan can hold.

THE INGREDIENTS (for ~2-3 servings):

0.5 cup fish sauce
0.5 cup tamarind juice concentrate*
1 cup coconut palm sugar
2-4 tablespoons Thai chili paste, based on heat preference

*If you can find this, use instead of tamarind paste. If not, mix 1 large tablespoon of tamarind paste with 3 tablespoons of water.

1 package dried rice stick noodles (~14 oz and wide, like what is used in Vietnamese Pho)
0.3 cup minced garlic
0.3 cup pickled sweet radish
0.5 cup minced shallots
1 cup ground roasted peanut
2 tablespoons dried shrimp
1 cup of fresh shrimp, peeled and de-veined
0.25 lb chopped chicken or pork pieces
1.5 cups of firm baked tofu*, sliced into thin rectangles
1.5 cups of either chives or green onion, sliced into 1 inch pieces
2 cups bean sprouts
1 cup cilantro leaves
2-3 eggs
Half of a green lime
0.3 cup sesame oil

*This kind of tofu is not the type sold in water-filled containers. It is a very dense, darkened tofu (usually from soy sauce) sold in vacuum-sealed packages

Though quick to cook, Pad Thai requires a lot of ingredients and prep work



  • Chop the palm sugar into smaller pieces to help with melting
  • Combine all of the ingredients for the sauce in a small pan and allow to simmer on low heat until the palm sugar dissolves. Stir frequently to blend well.
    • Heating fish sauce will inevitably release a strong odor, so be sure to have your windows open and your air vents on.

It is crucial that you taste-test your sauce. Pad Thai sauce should be a perfect balance of the four primary flavors – sweet and tangy at first, followed by salty with a touch of spicy after. Adjust the different sauce ingredients if you find your sauce to be lacking in any of these elements. Remember that the sauce will be highly concentrated and taste potent when sampled straight from the pan, but the flavors will later mellow when dispersed among the dish’s other ingredients.


  • Soak the rice noodles in cool water for about 30 minutes, longer if necessary. This is crucial, as the noodles will be ready to fry when they are flexible, but still al dente. As a test, you should be able to bend a noodle almost completely in half without it snapping.
  • In a wide wok or large pan, heat sesame oil on medium-high until hot. Add the garlic, shallot, pickled sweet radish, and dried shrimp. Mix around and fry for a few minutes until savory, but be careful not to burn. Move the mixture to the edges of the pan.
  • Add the chicken and shrimp to the center of the pan and sautée until almost fully cooked, around 5 minutes. Move the meats to the edges of the pan.
  • Add the tofu slices to the  center of the pan and sautée for a few minutes. Move to the edges of the pan.
  • Add the eggs to the center of the pan and mix, allowing to scramble but being careful not to burn. Add more sesame oil if needed. Finally, gently mix all of the ingredients in the pan together.
  • Drain and add the rice noodles to the pan. Pour about half of the sauce over the noodles and, using either two spatulas or kitchen tongs, gently toss all of the ingredients in the pan. Allow the noodles to fry until soft, constantly tossing and mixing in the sauce. 
    • As you fry, the noodles and other ingredients should start to absorb the sauce. If the mixture starts to look too dry before your noodles have fully softened, add more sauce and fry a little longer. However, be careful not to drown your stir-fry in liquid, as Pad Thai should never be overly saucy.  
  • Turn off the heat. Add the bean sprouts, chives/green onion, and peanuts to the noodles. Fold the noodles over these raw ingredients, allowing them to steam from the moist heat for a couple minutes. 
    • The bean sprouts should ideally have a nice firm texture without being overcooked. Finally, give the entire pan a splash of lime juice and a nice tossing to evenly distribute all of the ingredients.
Plate the noodles and top them with a handful of fresh cilantro leaves. You can also add traditional side garnishes of fresh beansprouts, ground peanut, dried chili, and a lime wedge.