Asian cultures, for reasons of fuel economy, have had long experience turning out quick, but deeply satisfying meals. Pad Thai, Thailand’s revered stir-fried rice noodle dish, is a classic example: it employs short-cooking methods and big flavor components. Quick and tasty, the stir-fry method is pure Chinese, but the seasonings hint at India. At its best pad Thai is an earthy, tender tangle of bursting flavors and textures that will wake up your appetite.
In “Time-Life Pacific and Southeast Asian Cooking” Rafael Steinberg notes that Thai cooks seem to have chosen carefully what foreign elements were allowed to dominate their cuisine and culture. You may uncover the influences of India and China, near neighbors, but Thai cooks have pushed their cuisine beyond merely flavorful to powerfully compelling, resulting in an “integrated, harmonious whole.” This reflects the country itself, which, unlike its neighbors, has never been colonized.
The first secret to Thai cooks’ success at quick, but enticing, memorable food is a symphonic blending of strong character contrasts like spicy-hot, sweet, sour, salty and pungent with wet, dry, crisp, soft, smooth and chunky. Shallots, ginger, garlic, chilies, cilantro, fish sauce, lime, tamarind, palm sugar and peanuts comprise the basic pad Thai flavor palette. Kaffir lime leaf, lemongrass, shrimp paste, scallions and mint may grace it with additional complexity.
Rice sticks or dried rice noodles are the central base of pad Thai and other Thai noodle dishes. They come in widths from an inch to fine angel hair vermicelli. For pad Thai choose a fettuccine or linguine width. First soak noodles in hot water until flexible (about 20 minutes), drain and cut with scissors into smaller lengths. The noodles cook in 2 to 3 minutes to a tender, chewy texture in stir-fry with some added liquid.
Alternatively, immerse noodles in boiling water for 30 seconds to a minute and rinse with cold water for use in cold dishes.
No rice noodles? Use fresh pasta or pre-cooked dry pasta. Try other Asian noodles like the Korean chapchae potato starch noodles, Chinese egg and cellophane (mung bean starch) noodles, Vietnamese rice vermicelli or Japanese kuzu noodles, buckwheat noodles (soba) and wheat noodles (udon and somen). Shred leftover vegetables. Create your own favorite combos. Use whatever protein you desire like fish, scallops, beef or pork.
A wok is helpful but not essential for pad Thai. A large, deep cast-iron skillet or Dutch oven work, too. Remember the rules of stir-fry cooking: Heat vessel hot then drizzle cold oil in around the edges, don’t fill vessel more than 1/3 full and cook in batches. (For a superior “non-stick” surface clean your steel wok with a fiber brush and hot water only. Dry over low heat and rub with oil.)
Pad Thai starts with stir-fried seasonings like shallots, ginger, garlic and chilies or a canned Thai red curry paste. Finely shred vegetables like carrots, cabbage and mung sprouts, and cook in batches along with quick cooking proteins like finely sliced chicken, scrambled egg, shrimp and chunks of tofu. Simmer rice noodles in broth or water, fish sauce and sweetener. Combine all the ingredients. Mound the finished pad Thai high on a large platter, garnish with loads of cilantro, peanuts and lime wedges. Serve immediately.
You might quake at the thought of gathering this slew of ingredients. If so, you have permission to look behind the ingredients to the method. Study the pad Thai dishes you like best in restaurants or recipes and create your own version. Pad Thai is like an opinion, everyone’s got one and they all think theirs is the best. This month you might want to try out your pad Thai opinion. Here’s mine:
THAI STIR-FRIED RICE NOODLES (Pad Thai)
Traditional pad Thai ingredients include dried shrimp, seasoned tofu, egg, pickled radish, and garlic chives. This version is less exotic, but unapologetically lush.
Yields about 7 cups, 4 to 6 servings
2 T. block tamarind paste (1 oz.)
2-1/2 T. fish sauce, more to taste
2-1/2 T. palm sugar or maple syrup
8 oz. dried Thai rice stick noodles
5 to 6 oz. Savoy cabbage leaves
1 medium carrot
4 oz. medium-large shrimp, peeled and deveined
4 T. vegetable oil, as needed
2 large eggs, about 1 c. whisked
1 T. Thai Red Curry Paste, more to taste
8 oz. boneless, skinless chicken breast, thinly sliced into ribbons
1 c. chicken stock
3 large green onions, trimmed and finely sliced
4 oz. mung bean sprouts, about 1-1/2 c.
1/4 to 1/2 c. coarsely chopped roasted peanuts or 1/2 c. roasted chopped cashews
Fish sauce (Red Boat is the best)
Soak tamarind paste in 1/2 cup boiling water until very soft, 15 to 20 minutes. Mash tamarind and liquid together to a purée. Push through a fine strainer. Scrape the bottom of strainer to retrieve all the tamarind purée. Discard fiber and seeds remaining in strainer. There should be at least 1/2 cup purée. Mix fish sauce and sweetener with tamarind purée, and set aside.
Cover rice noodles in very warm (not hot) water until flexible, 20 minutes; drain. Cut them into smaller lengths if desired, although Thais don’t.
Slice each whole cabbage leaf in half with the ribs and remove ribs. Stack leaves and finely slice them crosswise into 1/8- to 1/4-inch-wide shreds to yield 2 to 3 cups. Shred or julienne carrots into long, thin lengths to yield about 2/3 cup. Arrange vegetables on a tray, ready for cooking action. In a small bowl, pour 1 teaspoon kosher salt over shrimp and stir 1 minute. Rinse, drain, and pat dry. Set shrimp on tray.
Heat a 10-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat, and swirl in 1 teaspoon oil. Pour in eggs and cook until set. Push cooked egg aside so wet egg can run onto the pan and cook, but don’t make scrambled eggs. When eggs are fully cooked, remove from pan onto a clean cutting board and slice into strips. (Alternatively, cook eggs in wok with 1 tablespoon oil.) Set eggs on tray with oil, curry paste, chicken, chicken stock, green onions and sprouts.
Heat a wok or heavy 11-inch, 6-quart Dutch oven over high heat until hot, and swirl in 2 tablespoons oil. Stir in curry paste and stir-fry, mashing into oil, 30 seconds. Stir in chicken and stir-fry until just cooked through. Transfer chicken to large mixing bowl with slotted spoon and set aside. Deglaze wok or Dutch oven with a little stock or water and scrape into bowl with chicken.
Reheat wok or Dutch oven over high heat, and swirl in 1 tablespoon oil. Stir-fry shrimp until just opaque; transfer to bowl with chicken. Swirl in 1 tablespoon oil and stir-fry cabbage and carrots until fully wilted, about 4 minutes. Transfer to bowl with shrimp and chicken.
Lower heat to medium under wok or Dutch oven. Stir drained noodles, tamarind and seasoning ingredients and 1/2 cup chicken broth into cooking vessel; bring to a simmering boil. Stir and cook noodles gently, but constantly, until just tender, but with some resistance, 2 to 3 minutes. The noodles should absorb the liquid as they cook, leaving them moist and slippery, not soupy. Fold in green onions and bean sprouts. If noodles stick to wok, drizzle in more stock or water.
Fold chicken, shrimp, and vegetables into noodles. If noodles clump or seem sticky, moisten them with remaining stock or just enough water to loosen them. Fold egg and part of the cilantro gently into noodles. Taste and adjust seasonings.
Mound pad Thai high onto a large platter. Garnish with nuts and remaining cilantro. Arrange lime wedges around the edge. Serve with fish sauce and more nuts on the side.
- Cilantro Aversion: Substitute mint or Thai basil for cilantro.
- Peanut Allergy: Substitute toasted cashews, toasted sesame seeds or toasted pumpkin seeds.
- No Curry Paste: Substitute an equal amount of Chinese chili paste with garlic.
— Adapted from “Discovering Global Cuisines” by Nancy Krcek Allen