Thai food is a hugely popular cuisine, of that there is no question. It’s one which many enjoy … and enjoy year round. But as I post this recipe, I also reflect that it is a cuisine I seem especially drawn to in the colder and winter months — perhaps it is because the warmth of flavours bring comfort and life to our homes that guard against the season. Perhaps it is because our body seeks the nutrients and freshness of the food whilst our grocery store shelves imperceptibly are transformed into warehouses of root (winter) vegetables, foods grown in hot houses, and those trucked from faraway lands. I’ve previously brought you Thai soups (coconut pumpkin) and curries (green curry and Massaman curry) and even summer Thai salads, but noodles have been absent so far … and nothing says Thai noodles like an authentic pad Thai.
If you ask me, pad Thai is the south-east Asian equivalent of that proverbial Italian comfort food, spaghetti bolognese. And like spaghetti with meat sauce, pad Thai has as many different variations and treatments. They all have rice noodles and bean sprouts and usually peanuts sprinkled on top, but the proteins vary from egg, to tofu, to shrimp, to chicken to all of the above. Some have veggies, many do not. But what really sets so many apart is the “sauce.” And it is on this that I will focus my attention in this recipe.
The sauces can range from those staying ‘purist’ and those that westernize it or simplify it. The truth is, the sauce is stupidly easy in almost all cases, but some rely on western ingredients (like ketchup) while others build the sauce up from the base. All the sauces will have a combination of sour, salty, and sweet and some will have some spice as well. Yes, those are the flavours of Thai food. What you use to produce them, can vary. The salty is usually going to come from the Thai fish sauce, but some will use soy sauce in combination with it or instead of fish sauce and some will use table salt. The sweetness is usually sugar (in one of its forms white, brown, demerara, honey) but those that use ketchup are using it for that purpose plus its vinegar that leads into the next flavour. Yes, sour is the real kicker in my opinion that keeps it yummy and authentic or some version thereof. The sour can come from the ketchup (when used to sweeten) vinegar, lime juice … or tamarind. What is that, you ask? I introduced my readers to it in my Massaman Curry recipe by writing the following about tamarind:
If you’re like many, tamarind is either an unfamiliar ingredient or one you know but have always been wary of trying. It’s actually not that scarey an ingredient. Tamarind is a bushy tropical tree that produces a kind of fruit in the shape of pod. These pods, when ripe, produce a sticky, sappy fruit which would perhaps best be described as sweet-and-sour. It is used in cooking through a large part of Africa and Asia and is commonly substituted in North America with a combination of lime juice and some sugar. However, if you’re looking to be authentic, tamarind is a simple thing to use … and cheaply procured at most Indian/Asian/ethnic grocers (cheaper than limes out of season). It comes in a jelly like ‘brick’ looking like compressed figs … or, as I purchased mine, as a concentrate in the form of a thick paste. While both will work, the ‘brick’ typically includes the seeds and so will need straining before use. Some come with directions for reconstituting it, but my rule is about 1-tablespoon paste per 1/4 cup boiling water = 1 lime plus 1-teaspoon sugar.”
In my opinion, this is what will separate your creation from those average pad Thai’s and propel into something super yummy and authentic. Yes, if you come from a small non-urban centre it may be a bit harder to locate, but it’s likely closer than you think and it costs next to nothing and lasts a long long time. It’s worth the adventure to track it down and use it.
A couple of other notes about tried and true pad Thai. First, the noodles. You have lots of choices in this regard from angel hair to thick rice stick. I use vermicelli but choose whatever floats your boat — there really isn’t a ‘wrong’ answer here. However, and as in Italian food, the key to any good noodle dish is to not ‘overcook‘ the noodles. In this case they are simply immersed in boiling water, but the process is the same. Use the manufacturer’s instructions as guide and note that they vary, but whatever you do, watch them, taste them, and don’t overcook. Indeed, under-cook if anything. In my case, 3 minutes was plenty. The second note is that this is a recipe for “vegetarian” pad Thai: read tofu. If you don’t like tofu, that’s cool, just use a couple of sliced chicken breasts instead. Want shrimp? Then use 1 lb of shrimp instead. Want to mix it up? Mix it up. Nothing else should require changing.
Ultimately, make the substitutions you need/want and make this recipe your own. After all, everyone else has before you, why shouldn’t you?
- 2 tablespoons (30mL) tamarind paste
- boiling water (approximately ½ cup - 125mL)
- ¼ cup (65mL) premium Fish Sauce
- ⅓ cup (85mL) white sugar
- 2 tablespoons vinegar (rice wine or apple cider)
- ½ teaspoon (3mL) chili paste
- In a graduated glass measuring cup, add tamarind paste.
- Top this up to ½ cup with boiling water.
- Add the fish sauce, sugar, and chili paste.
- Mix well.
- Add vinegar, to taste, until right balance between sweet and tangy exists for your particular taste.
- Mix again, taste, and adjust for any of the ingredients for your taste.
- 1 lb (450g) firm tofu, sliced and pressed
- ½ lb (250g) rice stick (vermicelli)
- ½ red pepper, finely sliced
- 3 green onions, cut into thirds and then thinly sliced
- 1 large carrot, coarsely shredded (or matchsticks)
- 1 tablespoon (15mL) fresh ginger, minced
- 1 clove fresh garlic, minced
- 2 eggs
- 3 tablespoons (45mL) avocado (or peanut) oil
- 2 cups (500mL) mung bean sprouts, rinsed and drained
- ½ cup (125mL) dry roasted peanuts, finely chopped
- ½ cup (125mL) cilantro leaves, roughly chopped
- Fresh lime, cut into wedges
- Do all your prep first. Begin, by preparing the Pad Thai sauce as per recipe above.
- Place rice stick noodles in a large bowl and cover with boiling water. Let stand 3-5 minutes, or as indicated on package, until the vermicelli is loosened, has lost its crunch, but is still slightly al dente. Drain and immerse in cold water. Drain again and put in cold water again -- the point is to arrest the cooking and remove the starch so the noodles don't stick. Place in fine mess strainer and let stand while you complete the rest of your prep.
- Prepare the green onion, red pepper, carrots, garlic, and ginger and set aside.
- Prepare the tofu by removing the block from its package. Slice it lengthwise into 4-5 slices, each about ½-inch (1-cm) thick. Lightly press each slice between layers of paper towel to absorb excess moisture. Now cut each slice into strips ½-inch wide ... then again, perpendicular, so that you end up with ½-inch cubes. Place 1 tablespoon of oil in the bottom of a large wok over high heat. Add half the tofu and fry it for about 5 minutes, stirring regularly, until dark golden brown. Remove from wok onto paper towel and repeat with remaining tofu and another tablespoon of oil. Remove this as well.
- Add another tablespoon of oil to the wok and stir fry the onions and peppers for 2 minutes.
- Add the carrots and continue stir frying for another minute.
- Now add in the ginger and garlic and quickly fry for another minute more.
- Drop in the eggs now and scramble with other ingredients (if they are sticking, add another tablespoon of oil, but this shouldn't be necessary)
- Toss in the drained vermicelli now and continue to fry, mixing all the ingredients together as well as you can.
Note: A larger wok makes this a lot easier.
- Add back in the tofu and mix together.
- Drizzle in about three-quarters of the sauce, reserving the remainder for individual serving.
- Toss in half the peanuts and half the cilantro and mix.
- Serve with extra sauce (to taste) and a fresh sprinkling of peanuts and cilantro and a few fresh lime wedges. Enjoy.