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Pad Thai – Famous Street Food

Peanuts, tamarind, bean sprouts, tofu, chili powder, and dried shrimp. This list of ingredients probably looks unfamiliar, especially combined in one dish. But if you’re into Thai food, you’ve likely eaten it dozens of times. You could have ordered it from a street vendor in Thailand with a huge, flat wok, from a music festival stand in the United States, or in a chic new restaurant in Brussels. Pad Thai, for many foreigners, is the platonic ideal of Thai food – fried noodles and bean sprouts, sprinkled with hot chili flakes, and doused in sweet and sour red tamarind sauce.

Pad Thai Noodles

Pad Thai Noodles with Chicken (Click to enlarge)

It wasn’t always this way, though. Pad Thai as an emblem of Thai food is a modern invention. Even though a similar Vietnamese-style fried noodles had long been cooked in Thailand, modern Pad Thai wasn’t even named until the 1940s. At that time the Thai economy relied on rice exports. In an effort to free up more rice for export, the government adapted this dish to include a lot of comparatively cheaper bean sprouts. The sprouts added bulk, cut down on rice, and made Pad Thai cheaper than other fried noodles. The adaptation caught on, Pad Thai is Thailand’s most famous food, and Thailand is the world’s largest rice producer.

Pad Thai stir noodles and tofu fried in a wok

Pad Thai noodles stir fried in a wok (Click to enlarge)

Thai people still eat a lot of Pad Thai, and the best place to find it is the street corner. Thais, many standing up, gobble it down with sticks or wait by the food cart for a folded wax-paper parcel filled with noodles to take-away. Pad Thai is sometimes served wrapped in a banana leaf or inside of a thin omelette. People don’t order it in sit-down restaurants and and they don’t cook it at home – after all, if the same vendor makes Pad Thai dozens of times every night, why bother to cook it yourself? Pad Thai is the hamburger of Thailand – it’s cheap, it’s everywhere, and when it’s made correctly, it’s delicious. Unfortunately, there are a lot of vendors that serve Pad Thai with pre-scrambled egg scraps, sticky red noodles, and, worst of all, leave out the dried shrimp to suit foreign taste.

Pad Thai Goong (Pad Thai with Shrimp)

Pad Thai Goong (Click to enlarge)

Pad Thai is thin rice noodles stir-fried with tofu, dried shrimp, bean sprouts, eggs, peanuts, and maybe a meat like fresh shrimp. Pad Thai sauce is some combination of palm sugar, tamarind juice, fish sauce, and chilies. The Pad Thai made in Thailand tends have less red sauce. Diners put their own condiments, like lime juice, pickled peppers, fish sauce, sugar, and chilies on at the table. The noodles get further enlivened with fresh bean sprouts, green onions, and banana flowers. In Thai restaurants abroad, Pad Thai tends to be pre-seasoned with more heavy, sweet sauce.

Banana flower and other ingredients at the Pad Thai shop near Chiang Mai Gate

Banana flower and other ingredients at the Pad Thai shop near Chiang Mai Gate (Click to enlarge)

These fresh banana flowers are at one of my favorite Pad Thai vendors, in the night market by the Chiang Mai gate. Like a lot of Pad Thai carts, they also cook hoy tawt — mussels battered and deep-fried, then served with chili sauce and bean sprouts. This stand is also the only spot I’ve seen Papaya Pad Thai, strips of green papaya fried Pad Thai style. This updated Pad Thai, unfortunately, turns out greasy and sweet.

Here is a recipe to try at home.  This Pad Thai kit makes cooking even quicker.  As with most stir-fries it helps to have your ingredients chopped and ready-to-go before you start cooking, and keep the heat on your stove very high. The high heat and quick cooking keeps your noodles from becoming soggy and sticking together. Serving your guests condiments at the table, Thai-style, lets everyone adjust their own level of spiciness and mix up their own perfect plate of Pad Thai.

Some people think the international craze for Pad Thai is bizarre — after all, it’s a simple street food in Thailand.  Do you think Pad Thai is overrated?  Or is it a perfect lunch, dinner, and midnight snack?  Give us your opinion, or tell us about your favorite Pad Thai in the comments section.

Kaitlyn MooreAbout the Author, Kaitlyn Moore:
Kaitlyn is originally from North Carolina but moved to Chiang Mai, Thailand, so that she could eat more noodles and avoid snow. She’s been abroad for over a year, with occasional stops in other parts of South and South East Asia.

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