Pad Thai: Thailand's ever-popular street food

EASILY ACCESSIBLE: Pad Thai with shrimp. Hillary Levin/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Tribune News Service

If you think about Thai food – which is something I do with alarming regularity – the Thai food you think about first is probably Pad Thai.

That is as it should be.

Pad Thai is probably most Americans' introduction to Thai cuisine, an authentic street food that is easily accessible to the American palate.

It's got noodles, it's got shrimp (or chicken or pork or tofu), it's got peanuts and eggs. It's a little bit tart, a little bit sweet. It can be spicy, too, but it doesn't have to be.

It's basically everything you want on a single plate, topped off with a squeeze or two of lime.

In Thailand, it started as a street food that was popular at stalls from Hat Yai all the way up to Mae Sai. In recent years, though, it has also been embraced in Thai restaurants, too, though it remains as popular as ever on the street.

The Pad Thai you will find in Thailand is similar to the American version, with a few notable differences. It is likely to be sweeter than we typically like in an entree; Thais love their food to be sweet. It will probably be spicier than the neutral American version, too. And if it is made with shrimp, the shrimp may well still have their heads attached.

When I was at an Asian market a couple of weeks ago buying a few ingredients to make this dish, a woman asked why I was buying shrimp with the heads removed rather than un-decapitated shrimp.

"Because I'm cooking for other people," I said.

Despite my insatiable fondness for Pad Thai, I had never made it before. And so I set out to look for a recipe that matched the perfect combination of tastes and textures that I had in my head.

The quest was actually harder than I thought. Some recipes had ketchup in them. Some were way too involved, with more ingredients than you'd want to put together in a week of cooking, much less a single dish commonly made by street vendors. Others had so few ingredients that the taste could not possibly approach true Pad Thai.

One cooked the shrimp first and kept it in the wok or skillet the entire time the other ingredients were cooking. That's fine, if you like rubbery shrimp.

So I took a little bit from one recipe, a dash from another and maybe a technique from a third to create my own version.

But first, a word about a couple of the ingredients: Pad Thai has a subtle undertone of tartness. That comes primarily from tamarind, which you can find at international markets. I bought it in concentrated paste form, but you can also get it already mixed with water, sold either on the shelf or frozen.

Tamarind pulp is also available dried and vacuum packed. You can reconstitute this yourself with water if you want to go through a lot of effort.

The noodles used for Pad Thai are also available at international markets, although some well-stocked grocery stores with a strong international selection may also carry them. They should be flat rice noodles, about the width of linguine. These are not boiled: just soften them by soaking them in warm water for several minutes.

And while you are at the international store buying tamarind paste and rice noodles, you may as well look for sweet or pickled radish. This brings a salty-sweet flavor to the dish, kind of like sweet pickles. It is by no means necessary for Pad Thai, but it is inexpensive (I bought a large package for $1.69) and will give you an authentic Thai flavor.

Pad Thai is a stir-fry, which means it all comes together quickly. For that reason, it is imperative to have all of your ingredients at hand before you begin.

Mine probably took less than 15 minutes to cook. It had just enough egg, just enough tamarind, just enough shrimp, just enough noodles and possibly not quite enough garlic.

But it was good. It was awfully good. I suspect it would be welcomed from Kanchanaburi all the way over to Ubon Ratchathani.

Pad Thai

Yield: 2 servings

Adapted from recipes by Cooking with Poo, Seonkyoung Longest and Palin Chongchitnant

Notes: Tamarind paste is available at Asian and international markets. You can also find tamarind pulp, either frozen or not. Sweet radish is also available at Asian and international markets.

As with all stir-fries, it is vital to have all the ingredients prepared and ready before you start to cook.

Ingredients

4 ounces dried flat rice noodles (or 8 ounces fresh)

4 ounces extra-firm tofu

1/2 small red onion, sliced thin

1 clove garlic, minced

1 teaspoon tamarind paste, see note

2 tablespoons fish sauce

1 tablespoon brown sugar

3-1/2 tablespoons oil, preferably peanut oil (do not use olive oil), divided

1/4 pound peeled and deveined shrimp or chicken or combination of both

1 tablespoon sweet radish, finely chopped, optional. See note

2 large eggs

3 spring onions, sliced into 2-inch lengths

1-1/2 cups bean sprouts, plus more for garnish, if desired

3 tablespoons roasted peanuts, crushed or finely chopped, plus more for garnish

Lime wedges

Crushed red pepper or cayenne pepper, optional

Method

1. Soak the noodles in warm water until soft, about 10 minutes. Wrap tofu in paper towels to remove excess moisture.

2. Mix together tamarind paste, fish sauce, brown sugar and 1/4 cup water. If water is listed as the first ingredient of tamarind pulp, use 1/4 cup of the pulp and leave out the 1/4 cup of water. Stir until thoroughly dissolved. Set aside. Cut tofu into bite-sized cubes.

3. Place a wok or large skillet on high heat and add 1 tablespoon of the oil. Stir fry shrimp and/or chicken until done and remove with a slotted spoon. Add 2 tablespoons oil to the wok or skillet, allow to get hot, and add tofu cubes, sliced red onion and garlic. Stir fry until tofu is browned, 2 to 3 minutes.

4. Add noodles and reserved sauce made from tamarind paste and fish sauce. Add minced sweet radish, if using. Stir fry until noodles can be easily cut, about 2 to 3 minutes. If sauce is sticking to pan, add 2 tablespoons water at a time and stir to loosen it and incorporate it into the sauce.

5. Push mixture to one side of the wok or pan. Add the remaining 1/2 tablespoon oil to the cleared side of the wok or pan, if needed. Crack eggs into the cleared side of the wok or pan and allow to cook undisturbed until they are half-cooked. Then, mix together with other ingredients in the wok or pan until scrambled.

6. Return shrimp and/or chicken to the pan and stir to mix together. Add sliced spring onions, bean sprouts and the 3 tablespoons peanuts. Cook a few minutes, stirring. Serve with lime wedge. On the side of the plate, serve with more chopped peanuts, bean sprouts and small piles of crushed pepper or cayenne pepper, if desired.

Per serving: 1,259 calories, 54 g fat, 8 g saturated fat, 277 g cholesterol, 105 g protein, 85 g carbohydrate, 17 g sugar, 15 g fiber, 1,752 g sodium, 741 g calcium

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