The national dish of Thailand… there are as many variations as there are temples in Bangkok. My quest for the perfect pad Thai began after I tried the noodle dish for the first time (about 12 years ago). I lived in the Fenway and there were at least 4 Thai restaurants within a 1 block radius. Within a week, I had tasted them all and picked Bangkok City’s version as my favorite. Though the restaurant’s other dishes were not as good, the pad Thai was far superior and that was all I needed.
The obsession continued as I tried to refine the dish at home. I went on-line and found hundreds of recipes. Though I had never studied Thai cuisine (save a one hour lecture in culinary school), I could decipher the pattern of sweet, salty, sour and hot. I created a little spreadsheet that laid out all the variations. Based on intuition and further research, I decided that fish sauce was more authentic than soy sauce, and ketchup just had no place at all. And so I began testing recipes. My friend Paul Sussman, who owned Daddy-O’s, let me use his prep kitchen during dinner service to test out recipes. At the end of the shift, I served his staff oodles and oodles of noodles. Though they were delighted, I was not pleased with my results – the flavor was always a bit off, and the texture of the noodles was never right either.
After many failed attempts at trying to unlock the secret of good pad Thai, I realized the only solution was to travel to Thailand and take a cooking class. I had been forewarned that Thai pad Thai was very different than American pad Thai.
While vacationing, I ate noodles at most every meal – at street stalls, at restaurants and cafes. Each one a little different – most used the fresh rice noodles, some were spicy, some were not. In the cooking class, the mystery of the cooking technique was revealed. After a brief pan frying, the noodles were softened with the addition of water. The sauce, I was surprised, did in fact have soy and oyster sauces.
When I got home, I experimented a little more with the sauce, and ultimately, omitted the soy sauce altogether, but kept the oyster. I call my version “Pad Thai – Type A” (and I’m sure you can guess why…). This is what I came up with:
7 oz. dried rice stick noodles
3 tbs. "prepared" tamarind pulp
2 tbs. palm sugar
2 tbs. oyster sauce
2 tbs. fish sauce
1/4 tsp. (or to taste) thai chili powder or cayenne
3 tbs. oil
2 eggs lightly beaten
2 oz. firm tofu, diced, dried well on a paper towel
2 garlic cloves, diced
1 shallot, dice (opt.)
1 tbs. ground preserved turnip
6 oz. shrimp or chicken or combination (opt.)
4 scallions, cut into 2” pieces
¼ cup roasted unsalted peanuts, coarsely ground
1 ½ cup bean sprouts, soaked in cold water
1 lime quarter
1. Soak the dried noodles in hot water for 15 minutes. Drain.
2. To make the sauce: combine tamarind with palm sugar, oyster sauce, chili powder and fish sauce.
3. Heat 2 tbs. oil. Add drained tofu, and cook without stirring for 2-3 minutes, until tofu develops a brown crust on the bottom, and doesn't stick. Add garlic and shallots, and stir fry until soft. Add shrimp/chicken (opt) and preserved turnip.
4. Add noodles. Stir fry for 1 minute. Add 1/2 cup water to soften noodles. Stir fry until the water has evaporated. Add sauce, scallions and peanuts, and stir fry.
5. Push noodles to the side of the pan, and push that part of the pan off the heat. In the open space, pour in the eggs. Let eggs set for 1 minute before stirring into the noodles
6. Cook until noodles are soft and pliable. Add in sprouts and toss.
Garnish with lime and remaining sprouts.