Pad Thai is a street dish. It’s amazing how such a dish most Thai people really don’t choose to eat on a daily basis, has become the ambassador of Thai cuisine to the world. A Thai person would choose pad see ew or laad naar before they would ever order pad Thai. I can confidently say most Thai people have never ever cooked pad Thai in their kitchen. It is just one of those dishes you always get from a street vendor. Traditionally, pad Thai is served wrapped up in a banana leaf and eaten as a quick snack, and usually sold around temples when there are Buddhist festivals. It is generally half the portion of what is served at Pad Thai Too. However, with such a high influx of tourists into Thailand every year there are now pad Thai stalls everywhere because that’s what tourists always ask for.
The flavors are to be a perfect balance of salty, sweet, tart and spice. Typically these are all served on the side: raw sprouts, guay chai (a more pungent cousin of the scallion), sugar, ground peanuts, dry chili powder and lime. You are supposed to season the pad Thai according to your own preference. Also you would never find chicken, black tiger shrimp, let alone duck in a pad Thai. The only protein you would get in pad Thai other than the egg and tofu is a dried, baby shrimp we call “goong haeng.” Goong haeng has a very pungent, salty taste, think fish sauce in solid form. A flavor not for the faint of heart and definitely not a flavor the American palate is used to; but, if you’re used to eating it like I do it is oh so yummy. It just adds the perfect amount of saltiness to round out certain dishes. Dishes like som tam (green papaya salad) or green mango salad can not be made without it.
Traditional pad Thai is also very dry and the noodles are meant to be chewy. There are a variety of rice noodles, but for pad Thai you need to used the thin, flat rice noodles that should be soaked in cold water. You would never parboil or soak the noodles in hot water because then the dish would turn mushy. Another ingredient is pressed tofu.
- Pressed Tofu
This is different from the tofu served at the restaurant. It is basically what the name says it is, it is pressed until all the liquid is out and becomes very firm. Egg is also definitely essential. The fat level in the egg ensures that the noodles don’t stick to the wok or one another. Another ingredient is “guay chai” or Chinese chive. We have substituted scallions for this as the guay chai is a lot stronger smelling and harder to obtain.
- Chinese Chives or “Guay Chai”
Another ingredient is “thung chai” or preserved radish. It is a minor player in pad Thai. It is used chopped up and has a slightly sweet flavor. It has more of a texture role than a flavor role.
The sauce is basically tamarind for the tartness, fish sauce for the saltiness, and palm sugar for the sweetness. The sauce is generally premade. All the ingredients are cooked together and allowed to caramelize a bit and that is generally where you get a nice reddish hue to the pad Thai, not from ketchup. Really good substitutes for the sauce would be vinegar for the tamarind, thin soy sauce for the fish sauce and white sugar for the palm sugar. Another item never missed in pad Thai is the lime served on the side. My personal taste, I like my pad Thai to be on the sour side. This is one flavor not very typical on the American palate when the dish is savory. The lime balances out all the flavors. In the beginning we served lime with the dish, but most people never used it. Now it is served on request. If you don’t generally get lime with your pad Thai, give it a try, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
There are also regional differences to how pad Thai is made. In the Central Plains where my mother is from they use a touch of shallots. In the Northeast area around Khorat they add a touch of garlic. No matter the regional differences this always remains constant: a balance of sweet, salty, sour & spicy, rice noodles, egg, goong haeng, guay chai, thung chai, sprouts in the dish and on the side, peanuts on the side, ground chili on the side, sugar on the side & a wedge of lime. This is definitely not part of pad Thai: ketchup or cilantro.
I hope this gives you a better understanding of pad Thai. I will post a recipe soon.