BANGKOK—Thai cooking is celebrated as one of the premier cuisines in the world. Over the past roughly 20 years, its popularity has grown so much that Thai restaurants have sprung up in almost every town in North America. Most Thai street venders would be amazed to know that “pad Thai” has become a household word in America.
Over the centuries, Thai cooking has had many influences. Chinese food was a major one since the ‘Tai’ people originally migrated from valley settlements in the mountainous region of Southwest China (now Yunnan province) between the 6th and 13th centuries. They settled into what is now known as Thailand, Laos, the Shan States of upper Burma, and northwest Vietnam. Foreign trade was also important influencing factor. The Portuguese brought their sweets to King Narai’s court in the 17th century and some say Buddhist monks from India brought curry to Thailand. Other traders brought Persian and Arabian recipes and spices.
Through taking a little something from each of these cultures and combining them with the area’s rich biodiversity, overtime Thailand has developed its own unique cuisine. Its amazing popularity is due to the fact that it’s healthy, easy to prepare, and most importantly, delicious.
The secret to the Thai cuisine is in harmonizing four tastes: sour, sweet, salty, and spicy. Each flavour should be balanced with the others yet remain distinctly identifiable. Although spiciness is often thought of as the defining characteristic of Thai food, the ‘heat’ must be equalized with the right mix of roots, grasses, and aromatic herbs such as sweet basil, mint, cilantro (coriander), lemongrass, and galingale (in the ginger family).
In addition to taste, equally important to Thai cooking is having a variety of textures and colours. And always be sure to pay attention to presentation. As you’ll learn watching any street vendor in an alley way in Bangkok, it’s not authentic Thai food if it doesn’t look as good as it tastes!
Pad Thai is Thailand’s signature dish. Like the word “Thai” (which means free), Thai cooks are never rigid in their approach. So be flexible in your interpretation of the recipes, particularly if you can’t find every ingredient. Sour, sweet, salty, and spicy can all be found in the basic recipe, but it’s up to individual’s taste to get the balance just right.
8 oz (250 g) dried rice noodles (half a package of Chantaboon noodles)
3 tablespoons oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
10 medium shrimp or 1/2 lb. chicken or 1/2 lb. firm tofu – optional
1/4 cup dried shrimp/prawns
2 teaspoons diced pickled or salted radish – optional*
1/2 cup firm tofu, diced
1/4 cup (2 fl oz/60 ml) fish sauce
1/4 cup (2 oz/60 g) sugar (palm sugar preferably)
2 tablespoons tamarind juice**
1 or 2 eggs, beaten
1/4 cup 1-in (2.5-cm) lengths chopped chives
1/4 cup (2 oz/60 g) ground roasted peanuts
1 cup bean sprouts
* Pickled radish can be hard to come by, but if you really want to go authentic you can order from somewhere like here. Or now that you know what it looks like, you might be able to find it in your local Asian grocery store.
** Tamarind’s unique sourness makes pad Thai taste like pad Thai, but if you haven’t got it, throw in some lime juice instead.
1/2 cup bean sprouts
1/2 cup chopped chives
1/2 lime, cut into wedges (sour)
Provide the following extras to allow each eater to balance the flavours as they wish:
Dried ground chilli (spicy)
Fish sauce (salty)
How to cook:
1. Soak the rice noodles in cold water for 30 minutes, or until soft. Drain, and set aside. A quicker method is to boil noodles the noodles for about 2.5 minutes, then drain and rinse with cold water. But be sure not to overcook them or they will disintegrate when stir-fried.
2. Heat a large skillet until hot, then add the oil. Add the garlic and shrimp (chicken or tofu), and stir-fry. Add the dried shrimp, pickled radish, and diced tofu.
3. Once the shrimp (chicken or tofu) is cooked, add the noodles and stir-fry until translucent. It may be necessary to reduce the heat if the mixture is cooking too quickly and the noodles stick.
4. Add the tamarind juice, fish sauce, and sugar. Stir-fry the mixture until thoroughly combined. Stir in the egg.
5. Turn the heat to high and cook until the egg sets, stirring gently. Thoroughly combine the mixture, and continue cooking over medium-high heat for about 2 minutes until most of the liquid is reduced.
6. Mix in the chives, peanuts and bean sprouts. Place on a serving dish, arrange the bean sprouts, chives, and lime attractively and serve.
Don’t forget to offer extra peanuts, ground chilli and sugar on the side!