After green curry and tom yum soup (or maybe even before), pad thai is probably the dish we associate most strongly with Thailand, enjoyed for its combination of simple, fresh flavours, and consumed in restaurants and homes around the world. Surprising, then, that this ‘classic’ Thai dish was actually invented less than a hundred years ago.
According to Australian chef and Thai food expert, David Thompson, it came about as the result of a nationwide competition under the military regime of Martial Phibun. In an attempt to revive the Thai economy by encouraging the production of rice noodles, he tasked the country with devising new noodle-based recipes. Salty, sweet and sour with the crunch of peanut and a kick of lime, the winning recipe was named pad thai, or ‘fried Thai style’. The rest, as they say, is history.
I love the flavours and textures of pad thai, and have long been searching for the perfect recipe. It’s not the most exciting dish to order when eating out, and I often find restaurant versions a little too sweet for my liking anyway (says the girl who can eat her own body weight in brownies, but that’s different, that’s baking), so pad thai seemed to be the perfect candidate for a simple home-cooked supper. But is it actually that simple?
I’ve always been slightly daunted by the quantity of ingredients that go into this dish. Once you start listing them (as I’ve done below), the sheer volume really seems to stack up. What’s the best order to add everything? Will I forget a key ingredient? And what about that slightly scary scrambled egg bit? The answer is preparation. If you get everything prepped, chopped and ready in bowls (a la Saturday Kitchen or Delia circa 1995, that spontaneous Jamie Oliver malarkey cuts no mustard here), it’s pretty much just a straightforward assembly job.
Pad thai is also a matter of taste. After scouring a bunch of recipe books, I moved my research online, where by far the most fascinating article I read was on Chez Pim’s site. It’s well worth a read. Rather than providing a recipe, she takes the reader on a detailed journey through the various stages of cooking; the importance of preparation, of getting your wok to the right temperature, of tasting your sauce for the right balance of salty, sweet and sour and of allowing yourself to be guided by your personal tastes.
Yes, there are certain elements that constitute a classic pad thai, but if you like peanuts, add a few more. Hate beansprouts? Leave them out. Being of a slightly snobby food blogger disposition, I’ve gentrified my version to include fresh prawns rather than dried and added a little blanched asparagus for texture. I didn’t have any salted radish so that’s not made it into this recipe, and since even uttering the word ‘tofu’ makes Carniverous Boyfriend run a mile, I’ve left that out too. If you want do want to include it, make sure you use a firm variety and add at the beginning with the prawns (chicken would be good too), making sure it’s nicely crisped and brown before adding the next ingredients.
This recipe pretty foolproof. Make your sauce, prep your ingredients and the whole thing can be thrown together in minutes. I wouldn’t advise making much more than the quantity below at one time as the volume of ingredients in your wok can become a little unwieldy, with the noodles sticky and overcooked. If you want to cook for four people, it might be worth making it in two batches, ensuring your pad thai performs ‘a footloose dance in an ultra hot wok’. Pim’s words, not mine, but a great way of summing up the casual simplicity of this dish.
Alternatively you could stick to the quantities below and make it for just one other special person. I promise it will make them love you very much.
Perfect pad thai (recipe inspired by Chez Pim and David Thompson)
For the sauce:
2 tbsp tamarind paste
1 tbsp fish sauce
Dash white wine vinegar
1/2 tsp chilli powder
1/2 tsp palm sugar
For the pad thai:
100g flat dried rice noodles
2 tbsp groundnut oil
2 spring onions, finely chopped plus one sliced lengthways, to serve
1 small shallot, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
2 birds-eye chillies (seeds removed if you prefer a milder taste)
Handful fresh raw prawns (I use a mixture of tiny & tiger prawns, shelled but tail on)
2 medium free range eggs, lightly beaten
2 tbsp peanuts, chopped
2 handfuls beansprouts
Small handful of asparagus spears, finely sliced & blanched in boiling water
Large handful of coriander, chopped
Mix together all the ingredients for the sauce in a small bowl. Adjust quantities to taste – pad thai should be the perfect balance of salty, sweet and sour. Set aside.
Soak the noodles in warm water until soft, but not slimy (no more than 15 mins). Blanch them in boiling water for just a moment, then drain (if they start to stick together you can always rinse them in cold water to loosen up the strands again).
Heat the oil in a wok until smoking. Add the chopped spring onions, shallot, garlic and chillies and warm for a couple of minutes before adding the prawns and cooking until fragrant and lightly coloured. Move the prawns to one side of the wok with a flat wooden spatula and pour the eggs into the other side. Leave to set for around 10 seconds, then break up the omelette-like mixture into small pieces with your spatula and stir until cooked through.
Add the blanched noodles and your pre-made sauce and stir until thoroughly combined.
Stir in the beansprouts and asparagus until warm and fully incorporated, then mix in two thirds of the peanuts. Turn off the heat and stir in the sliced spring onion and coriander. Squeeze over the juice of half a lime. Dish out onto two plates, sprinkle with the remaining peanuts and serve with a wedge of lime.