What is Pad Thai? For many of us who live in the western world, Pad Thai (or kway teow pad Thai) is simply a stir-fried rice noodle dish. This dish symbolizes Thai cooking in large part thanks to the Thai government who has been working hard to introduce the country’s cuisine to the rest of the world. There are thousands of Thai restaurants operating worldwide today and many of them bear the name Pad Thai as well. As a result, Pad Thai is served up everywhere from Wichita to Moscow. In the Random House Unabridged Dictionary it is defined as “a Thai dish of stir-fried rice noodles, fish sauce and other seasonings, usually tofu, shrimp, bean sprouts, and peanuts.” (1)
Pad Thai is absolutely nothing more than a noodle dish and it is not even native to Thailand. Its full name of kway teow pad Thai gives a nod to possible Chinese origins as “kway teow”, in Chinese, refers to rice noodles. It is highly possible that an early version of this dish was brought to Thailand by settlers crossing over from southern China. The cooking style of stir-frying is most definitely Chinese as most food historians give credit to them for the invention of noodles.
What is Pad Thai? Classic Elements of the Recipe
Deconstructing the classic elements of the Pad Thai recipe reveals a mixture of ingredients that in and of themselves are not necessarily memorable. It is only in their specific combination that the sum of their parts becomes a gastronomic delight. The balance of textures along with the three primary flavors of sweet, sour, salty, and a fourth of spicy, makes this dish memorable. Bean sprouts and peanuts add a subtle but desirable crunch against the smooth texture of the rice noodles. Palm sugar is the traditional Thai sweetener used and it makes the sauce thick and luscious.
The original Pad Thai recipe included proteins such as shrimp, pork, or chicken; palm sugar, tamarind, fish sauce, dried shrimp, eggs, garlic, tofu, peanuts, salted radish, thin rice noodles, and bean sprouts. However, we will offer up a delectable plant based version for you to enjoy!
Former restaurant critic for the Bangkok Post, Robert Halliday, says, “Pad Thai is one basic recipe, with no specific quantities of ingredients. It’s all interpreted; you are supposed to know how it tastes and what you should look for before the next stage of cooking. In old Thai cookbooks there is no such thing as quantity. That’s why you never get the same dish.”
Bangkok natives usually garnish Pad Thai with something fresh and crisp such as raw mango, raw sour fruit, banana blossoms, or an extremely sour fruit called madan. The one ingredient of Pad Thai that always remains the same is the medium to thin dried rice noodles. Chefs can select sen lek noodles or a chewier style sen chan noodle from the region of Chantaburi region. Pad Thai aficionados prefer sen chan style noodles as they have more of a bite to them.
What is Pad Thai? Finding the dish in Bangkok
For those who are fortunate enough to visit Bangkok for some authentic Pad Thai, they may find themselves on an eternal quest. Many Thai natives agree that the unnamed noodle stand located near the Ghost Gate in the oldest part of the city was once quite popular. Srisawat says “I remember lines about two blocks long. The cook made it one order at a time; it was not mass-produced.”
Most Thai natives recommend that visitors wander through the side alleyways or ask any taxi driver for directions to the best Pad Thai stall. Most street vendors park their food carts on the Soi Trok Kaptan road that runs alongside the Chao Phraya River, near the most popular tourist hotels. Many good Bangkok restaurants offer Pad Thai and some of their variations of the dish are exceptional. Vendors who make Pad Thai exclusively make the absolute best versions. They become specialists or even Pad Thai artisans.
What is Pad Thai? A Plant Based Pad Thai Recipe
Pad Thai Ingredients
- ½ cup extra firm tofu (pressed and crumbled)
- 1 tablespoon tamari or soy sauce (or coconut aminos)
- 1 teaspoon sweet chili sauce or ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
- ½ teaspoon turmeric
- 2.5 tablespoons nut butter (peanut, almond, cashew, sunflower)
- 3.5 tablespoons lemon or lime juice (fresh squeezed)
- 3.5 tablespoons tamari or soy sauce (or coconut aminos)
- ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes or 1 teaspoon sweet chili sauce
- 1.5 tablespoons agave or maple syrup
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil
- 1 pepper of your choice (Serrano, red, jalapeno), sliced very thin
- 3 large green onions, sliced thin
- 1.5 cups cabbage (red or green), sliced thin
- 1 bell pepper (red, yellow, orange or green), sliced thin
- 2 tablespoons of tamari or soy sauce (or coconut aminos)
- 5 large carrots, peeled and shredded or cut into ribbons with a vegetable peeler
- 6 large kale leaves, stems removed and thinly sliced
- ½ teaspoon freshly grated ginger
- ½ teaspoon freshly grated turmeric
- Red pepper flakes
- Green onions
- Shredded cabbage
Rice noodles – prepared according to package directions and set aside
Rice noodles Method
Add tofu into a small bowl and season with soy sauce (or tamari, coconut aminos) chili sauce, and turmeric. Stir and allow marinating.
Add all of the sauce ingredients into a small bowl and stir to combine. Be sure to taste and adjust flavoring to your preferences. Add more lemon/lime juice for acidity, soy or tamari for saltiness, sweet chili sauce or red pepper flakes for heat or agave/ maple syrup for sweetness. Allow the sauce to sit so flavors can blend.
Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Once the pan becomes hot add in the oil, bell pepper, onions, cabbage, hot pepper, and one tablespoon of soy (or tamari, coconut aminos). Cook for 5 minutes making sure to stir everything constantly.
Add the tofu into the pan along the outside edges and sauté it until it becomes a light golden brown. Stir this frequently for around 5 minutes.
Add the carrots and kale along with the remaining 1 tablespoon of soy (tamari, coconut aminos) and stir. Sauté for 3 minutes and add in the sauce along with the freshly grated ginger and turmeric.
Sauté over medium heat until everything is warmed and the kale has been wilted, approximately 3-5 minutes, stirring often.
Add in rice noodles and stir everything to combine.
Taste and adjust flavors according to your tastes.