Samui Wining & Dining
Pad Thai

It’s so much more than just fried noodles!

 

8In Thailand, eating out is a national preoccupation. Some say obsession. It’s inherent in the traditional greeting of ‘have you eaten yet?’ and the thread of conversation among workmates, family and friends. It’s a tough call to define what is quintessentially Thai about local food. Many foreigners think of super spicy, and it may be hard to believe that before the Portuguese brought chillies to Asia in the 16th century, black pepper was the local spice of choice. Few foods have been adopted so quickly or so naturally as chilli which is now integral to Thai food.

      But Thai food is not only about heat. Many Thai foodies refer to a complexity of tastes involving the interplay of sour, sweet, salty, bitter and spicy taste senses. Some define Thai food by its diversity or its creative use of fresh herbs and spices. What about pad Thai? That sounds really Thai, right? Certainly internationally, pad Thai is recognized as an archetypal Thai dish, weighing in right up there (between som tam and tom yam kung) as the fifth most delicious food worldwide in a popular poll. However, some people quibble that pad Thai is probably not even Thai in the first place as noodles are a sure sign of Chinese influence, and even the full name ‘kway teow pad

Thai’ translates as ‘Thai-style stir-fried noodles,’ again indicating a Chinese origin.

      So perhaps this is a clue to definition of Thai food culture: let’s take something as foreign as chillies (imported from South America) and noodles (from China), tamarind (from Africa) and make something so deliciously balanced, beautiful to look at, combining intricate techniques and diverse ingredients to produce a superb national dish.

       Pad Thai is often prepared, seemingly on the fly, at specialist street vendor stands or small restaurants that usually makes this dish exclusively. Like a lot of Thai one-dish foods, it may look easy but requires extensive preparation and demands good quality - if simple - ingredients. First the noodles. These should be cooked through, but still ‘al dente’ and well-seasoned without being too soggy or too gummy. Good quality noodles are key, but technique really matters here: noodles are pre-soaked but not blanched, and the final texture and flavour of the noodles are vital to the success of this dish.

      There’s more leeway when preparing the sauce for pad Thai, which combines fish sauce, palm sugar, brown sugar and tamarind pulp. Tamarind, another Thai favourite, is originally from Africa via India, where the sour fruit of the mature tamarind pods have been collected for sweet and sour dishes for centuries. Some cooks use it liberally to create a slightly sour twist, while others will emphasize the salty by adding more fish sauce or sweet using palm sugar. Of course there are always condiments on the table so that you can adjust the flavours to your personal preference.

     To watch an experienced pad Thai cook is a thrill - they seem to instinctively know how long to cook the noodles, how much moisture to add and how to time everything so that the noodles and the added ingredients are softened by the sauce but not overcooked.

      Noodles are stir fried in hot oil, and the sauce and shrimp follow shortly after, with the cook using two spatulas to keep it all moving. Next the slightly softened noodles are pushed to the side and they will add more oil with garlic, shallot, preserved radishes, dried shrimp, firm tofu chopped into wedges, and fresh prawn. Here he or she will call on years of experience and skill to keep it all moving without burning the ingredients.

       Pad Thai is usually prepared with prawn, although some restaurants do serve chicken or beef. Once the prawns are starting to cook, some egg is scrambled in, so that by the time the prawns are perfect, the noodles are soft and chewy and have absorbed all the sauce, the eggs are ready and there a some crispy caramelized edge to the whole dish. A very thin omelette is prepared in a separate pan, and the noodle mixture beautifully enfolded with another essential ingredient- fresh garlic chives. The aroma and taste of these fresh greens (bai kui chai) is vital to any pad Thai experience. The plate is usually presented in the omelette with chopped peanuts on the side, some lime, a wedge of banana flower and the chive stalks. Some cooks will season with extra lime juice, sugar and dried chilli flakes.

         Stir fried noodle dishes, such as pad Thai, are eaten with a fork and spoon Thai style and not with chopsticks. In fact, go figure, the only Thai dish commonly eaten with chopsticks is noodle soup.

         The garnish on the plate is literally part of the meal and not just decoration. The lime is squeezed over the noodles and the chive stalks are munched as you go. The banana flower - the heart of a banana blossom - is crunchy with a mild astringent taste which on its own you might find mildly unpleasant, but is a perfect counterbalance to the oil and sugar in the pad Thai.

         By the time you’re done with a good plate of pad Thai all that should be left is your fork and spoon, a squeezed-out lime and some prawn tails!

         

Annie Lee


 


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