Pad Thai is often thought of as the quintessential Thai comfort food, but the wok-fried noodle dish isn’t even 100 years old.
In 1938, six years after a coup d’état took away ruling power from the Siamese monarchy, Field Marshal-turned-Prime Minister Plaek Pibulsongkram passed cultural mandates to promote nationalism and Thai cultural identity. Oddly enough, one of the cultural imperatives was to eat pad Thai, an invented (or at least otherwise obscure) dish incorporating fried Chinese noodles but with Thai seasonings.
But as my wife, born and raised in Bangkok, likes to put it: “Pad Thai? Foreigners eat that.” She jests, but there’s truth there: When it’s time for comfort food, many Thai sit down to a dish of pad krapow—fried holy basil. (The record is unclear, and this may also be an invented dish promoted by Pibulsongkram, but never mind that.)
No matter how you transliterate it from the Thai script, phat kaphrao (technically correct), or pad krapow or kapow (how many Thai pronounce it), consists of meat such as pork, chicken, beef, or seafood stir fried with Thai holy basil, chiles, garlic, and some typical Thai seasoning sauces. It comes with rice and a fried egg (khai dao) and pretty much any Thai restaurant or food cart with a wok is likely offering it on the menu.
At a glance, a serving appears to be dominated by stir-fried ground pork (moo sap), but the dish actually takes its name from the traces of green: holy basil, aka krapow. You can find a variety of other meats similarly tossed in a wok with krapow—chicken (gai), prawns (kung), beef (nuea), or even mushrooms (het)—but the basil is the constant. And not just any basil.
Know Your Basils
This is one of those dishes where substitutions really don’t cut it. The first trick to making it taste right will be finding fresh holy basil.
Holy basil, the Thai version, is something a good Asian-focused grocer might carry. It comes once a week (when it comes at all) to two of our local markets (in Madison, Wisconsin), shipped from California.
What’s the difference? Basil is basil, no?
For starters, holy basil is distinct by sight and taste from the Thai basil typically used in Thai curries and as a garnish. That Thai basil, or horapa, is sweeter, with a strong anise- or licorice-like flavor to it, and its Latin name is Ocimum basilicum var. thyrsiflora. This is just one of dozens of varieties of Ocimum basilicum, a species that includes Genovese (the popular sweet basil of Italian cooking), Greek, purple, and lemon basils.
Holy basil, on the other hand, is a completely different species: Ocimum tenuiflorum. And again, there are multiple varieties.
Thai basil has purple, hairless stems, with leaves that are darker green, shiner, and sturdier, and show a smooth or barely toothed edge. Holy basil leaves grow from green, hairy stems and appear lighter and duller in color, with a more rounded shape and a clearly toothed edge.
Hoping to grow our own supply, my wife and I purchased a small holy basil plant from a greenhouse. But in the end, the plant turned bush-like and the leaves had an herbal sweetness completely unlike what we expected.
What happened? The holy basil we’d purchased was a medicinal variety common in India, also referred to as tulsi, often used for tea and revered as an earthly representation of Lakshmi, the consort of the god Vishnu in Hinduism—hence its “holy” status.
The basil we are cooking with here, however, has a sharp and peppery flavor, with hints of lemon. Though it’s not at all hot like a pepper, it is sometimes described as “spicy” and may be labeled “hot basil” at some markets (including ours, in fact). If you’ve had drunken noodles with chicken (gai pad kee mao) in a Thai restaurant, odds are you’ve eaten holy basil.
Once you have the right ingredients, pad krapow is fairly easy to make. We occasionally add green beans to ours in an effort to make it seem healthier, but some Thai people look askance at a restaurant that does this, as if they are being short-changed on the meat portion. (Interesting side note: some English-translated menus in Thailand have “Vegetable” or even misnamed “Vegetarian” sections, which often merely means the primary ingredient in the dish is vegetables and the meat within is not as much.)
The heat comes from Thai bird’s eye chiles, which vary from about 1 to 2 inches long and can be red or green, but will always be spicy. Sometimes, it’s hard to gauge.
In Thailand, cooks will often cut the peppers once or twice, leaving larger pieces, but then the heat varies depending on how they are cooked and how long. I chop them up, which exposes the inner lining where the heat-bearing capsaicin is concentrated, and also lets out the seeds, which are typically covered with it from contact. Three 2-inch peppers here is a darn good heat. Gluttons for punishment can go higher; cautious eaters might go fewer and chop them up less.
The dish is seasoned with oyster sauce, fish sauce, and sweet soy sauce. Oyster sauce is a bit like a more complex, syrup-like soy sauce with a bit of sweetness to balance the salt, and fish sauce—despite its off-putting smell—is a salty flavor bomb; both of them bring hefty doses of umami. They are also rather salty, so this recipe aims a bit low. Add a few dashes extra of each to taste.
Sweet soy sauce is somewhat optional, and to be used sparingly so the dish doesn’t get too sweet. If you don’t have it, soy sauce with a touch of molasses and brown sugar is close.
Pad Krapow Moo Sap (Stir-Fried Holy Basil With Ground Pork)
- 1 tablespoon oil
- 3 cloves garlic, chopped
- 2 to 4 Thai bird’s eye chiles, roughly chopped
- 1/2 pound ground pork
- 1/4 cup water, or more as needed
- 1 tablespoon Thai fish sauce
- 1 tablespoon oyster sauce
- 1/2 tablespoon sweet soy sauce
- A fistful of holy basil, cleaned and removed from the stem
Set a burner to just past medium heat and heat a large wok. Add a tablespoon of oil and wait until it shimmers. Turn on your exhaust fan.
Add the chopped garlic and chiles and stir them in the oil a minute. Don’t let the garlic get golden. When you are done coughing from the pepper steam, add the ground pork, breaking it up with a wooden spoon as it fries. I add 1/4 cup or more of water as the meat cooks, which makes it easier to break apart the clumps. Most of this should boil off as the meat cooks.
Add the seasoning sauces; the last bits of water will help distribute the thicker syrup-like oyster and sweet soy sauces throughout the pan. When the pink of the meat is gone, add the basil leaves and stir them in until they wilt and darken a bit.
Serve over jasmine rice, with an optional but recommended fried egg (khai dao) on top. In Thailand, this is also fried in the wok with oil, letting the edges get nice and crisp while leaving the yolk runny, and spooning oil over the top to cook that last bit of white. A runny yolk mixes well with the rest of the ingredients.
Kevin Revolinski is an avid traveler and the author of 15 books, including “The Yogurt Man Cometh: Tales of an American Teacher in Turkey,” and several outdoor and brewery guidebooks. He is based in Madison, Wis., and his website is TheMadTraveler.com