Pad Thai, the patriotic dish, has become the debutante of Thai cuisine. I think it’s about time that I blog about it, or rant about it would be more accurate, because people have pissed me off enough about making their own interpretation of this dish and persisting in calling their version of stir-fried noodles a “Pad Thai”.
Let me start from the history angle, so you would know why and what I’m so furious about. Pad Thai was born after we changed our country’s name from Siam to Thailand on June 24th, 1939. So, it’s safe to assume that this dish is no longer a debutante but actually is a 70-year-old dish. It started when Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram, the 3rd Prime Minister of Thailand, who was also responsible for changing the country’s name, wanted to create a noodle dish that was more Thai than Chinese to support his nationalism campaign.
I’m going to give a little more detail about the “Nationalism Campaign” of PM Phibunsongkhram here, and also the background leading up to the campaign. If this is not your interest skip the next three paragraphs.
In 1932, 7 years before Thailand changed its name, there was another big change. The country had gone from an absolute monarchy to a democracy in the most peaceful fashion of all revolutions of that kind. (Click here to read more about it on Wikipedia if you are interested). Then three years later, in 1935, King Rama VII, or King Prajadhipok, abdicated the throne. Thai people, unlike citizens of other countries during their revolutions, loved their monarch and continue to worship their kings even now. So his abdication put the Thais in shock. The newly anointed king, King Rama VIII, or King Ananda Mahidol was only 9 years old at the time and he wasn’t even in the country. He was studying abroad. Also do not forget the Great Depression in the US—it affected Thailand too. The Thais were living their lives day by day in such a deficit; scattered, confused, uncertain and insecure. Consequently, when Laung Phibunsongkhram became PM, he launched a nationalism campaign and created a leadership cult which ironically went well with the Thai culture, having been governed under an absolute monarchy for centuries.
His nationalism campaign included things like getting Thai people to say “Sawasdee”(hello and goodbye—same word) to everyone,(yes, our famous greeting is actually only as old as Pad Thai), to stop chewing betel nut (at that time almost everyone who was older than 12 chewed betel nut constantly), and both men and women shouldn’t show up in public topless anymore (dang!). The Thai women not only had to wear a blouse, they needed to change their outfit completely from wearing a pantaloon-like wrap around their bottom called “Chong Kraben” to a wrap-around skirt called “Pa-Sin” instead. Additionally, every woman had to wear hats in public. My grandmother told me that at that time she avoided going outside of her house unless she absolutely needed to, because she would risk getting a citation for chewing betel nut, not wearing a hat or, the worst, being chased down the street by the police who want to issue her a citation and losing her pa-sin that she wore over her chong-kraben. In that situation if she got caught, she would surely be spending the night locked up in jail! (If you want to read more about That cultural mandates, click here).
During that time there were many foreigners in the country: Chinese, Japanese and Westerners. The Japanese revealed their true motive around the same time that Pearl Harbor was attacked in December 1941. They were in Thailand for invasion, not for trade. The Westerners were mostly British and French, and they were there trying to colonize Thailand, failing time after time, (Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia that was never colonized), but of course they would not stop. These Westerners were the inspiration to the PM, in that he felt he needed to make the whole country look more “civilized” in the Westerner meaning of civilized, regardless of the fact that we were actually already civilized—it was just hot! (And “civilized” Westerners were smoking like fiends—a habit easily as filthy and lethal as chewing betel nuts.) Thai people, living in a climate where the average temperature is around 85-95 degrees, with 95% humidity, wore clothes and hats that were soaked with sweat in an effort to maintain our freedom and preserve our national assets. One other “civilizing” movement was getting Thai people to eat with utensils instead of their hands.
The largest group of foreigners were the Chinese, who controlled trading in the country. PM Phibunsongkhram encouraged economic nationalism, suggesting that Thai people ought to buy food and merchandise grown or made originally in Thailand and by Thai people as much as possible, just to lower the proportion of the Chinese control of trade and income. He also imposed Anti-Chinese policies, despite being part Chinese himself!
Alright, now we can get back to Pad Thai, now that you understand the background of the country around the time the dish was born. Back then most of the noodle dishes the Thais ate were either made by the Chinese or made following a Chinese recipe. Even the Thai word for our noodles, “guay-tiew”, is borrowed from the Chinese word. PM Phibunsongkhram wanted to encourage Thai people to eat more guay-tiew because the rice crops during that time were not doing so well, due to the big flood in 1942, and guay-tiew was made from lower quality rice or broken rice. However, he wanted a noodle dish to be created using the most home-grown Thai ingredients possible. The noodle itself was Chanthaburi (a province in the east) noodle, which was produced with their own special technique. This thin rice noodle is chewier than most. The meat choice wasn’t pork because the Thai generally didn’t eat pork, only the Chinese.
Pad Thai original ingredients end up being:
Chanthaburi rice noodles
Dried shrimp (กุ้งแห้ง) staple ingredients in every Thai household
Extra-firm tofu (haha…nothing Thai about it,though…the Chinese side of him got confused, I guess)
Salted, preserved turnip (หัวไชโป๊เค็ม)
Pork fat (There was no vegetable oil yet back then, so most cooking oil was either pork fat or coconut oil)
Egg (This was an optional ingredient)
There was no tamarind pulp in the original, and most of the time the crushed peanuts, red pepper flakes and granulated sugar were added after cooking. Pad Thai has been altered significantly in the last 20 years. I don’t know exactly why or how, but my childhood memories of Pad Thai street vendors or market vendors was them always asking me “you want it with or without egg”, that’s it. No fancy fresh shrimp until I was in college, and chicken or beef was NEVER in Pad Thai. There are variations of Pad Thai in different provinces in Thailand, but when they use a different choice of meat, they don’t call it Pad Thai. In Chanthaburi, the province where the noodle is produced, they make stir-fried noodles with crab and call it “Sen Chan pad pu” (Sen=noodle, Chan=Chanthaburi, pad=stir fried, pu=crab) instead of Pad Thai. In Sukhothai they make Pad Thai with barbecued pork, but they call it “Guay tiew pad Sukhothai”.
This is the first episode of my Pad Thai trilogy. This is about its history and what it’s not! So, I’m going to give you a list of the ingredients that I often see in the recipes that claimed to be Pad Thai but these ingredients SHOULDN’T BE THERE AT ALL. I get soooooo mad if I see them in the recipe list!
No ginger Don’t be surprised and please, remember that ginger isn’t the ingredient that often found in Thai cooking. There will be dishes that we use ginger but quite rare. It’s very popular in Chinese cooking but not Thai. There is no ginger in any Thai curry paste. The root you normally saw as a part of Thai curry paste us Galangal root.
No lemongrass We’re not making any curry paste here, alright?
No fresh chili, instead we used dried red chili flakes and not stir-fried with the noodles but put on the side. It’s optional so children can eat Pad Thai without crying.
No green onion or scallions The green stalks you saw are garlic chive.
No Thai basil I would call you a replica-Thai if you mix up all the South East Asian fresh herbs and add basil in to Pad Thai. Basil has no place in this dish at all. You just have to remember that basil would be used mostly with curry and not stir-fried. There would be a few exception dishes but that’s it— very few.
No Cabbage in the wok.
No cilantro or coriander I know someone would tell you that you can’t go wrong with adding cilantro to Thai dishes. Noooo! That advice is as bad as saying that all American dishes use ketchup! So, NO CILANTRO IN PAD THAI OR ANY THAI CURRY DISH. I”m screaming now…remember THAT!
No carrots We don’t grow carrots except in the north where the climate is colder, but we only started growing carrots not so long ago.
No sesame oil Thais don’t use sesame oil as much as the Chinese, Koreans or Japanese do.
No Sriracha The most common mistake. PadThai is pink from the red color in the dried shrimps, not chili.
No chili paste
No Nam Prik Pao If you don’t know what it is, hang on, I will blog about it some other time. But just remember that it won’t come near the wok this time.
No ketchup, this is Pad THAI remember not Pad American.
No broth If you’ve ever seen a video made by Fine Cooking Magazine, demonstrated by a Vietnamese, Corinne Trang, who called the recipe “Authentic Pad Thai” and you trusted them because they’re after all “Fine Cooking Magazine”, then perhaps you followed their recipe. You no doubt ended up with “soupy” Pad Thai, if you managed to prevent it from becoming a mushy mess because of the broth. Corinne Trang and Fine Cooking disregarded the protests from many authentic Thai people who saw the recipe and tried to tell her and the magazine editor that the recipe was not authentic and that there were many foreign ingredients that the real Pad Thai would never have. (The ridiculous recipe call for chicken broth, Thai basil or cilantro, fresh red Thai chili and scallions…what a disaster?…must be a Tsunami!) Our group, the Thais who know and love this dish, only asked them to remove the word “Authentic” from their recipe and they refused even that. I swore that I would never touch that magazine ever again, not even at any doctor’s office.
The next Pad Thai episode will be the real deal, the recipe of the authentic Pad Thai from someone who has been eating and cooking this dish for at least a few decades: me.
The Pad Thai Trilogy has already been completed. It consisted of three parts.
This is the first episode, Pad Thai Trilogy, Episode I: What’s not