Eric Akis: Pad Thai perfection

Eric Akis

Pad Thai is Thailand’s most famous noodle dish and widely popular around the world. That stature is pretty impressive for a food that in Thailand is most often sold by street vendors and casual eateries.

According to Pailin Chongchitnant’s wonderful book, Hot Thai Kitchen, pad Thai was created after the full country name of Thailand was changed from Pratet Siam to Pratet Thai, which means land of the free. She says it seems ironic that a dish honoured with the name “Thai” uses noodles, an ingredient Chinese immigrants introduced and popularized in Thailand.

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But at that time, after the Second World War, the government was promoting the eating of noodles to reduce domestic rice consumption, because the latter was in short supply due to the war and flooding. At that time, they also wanted to establish a strong Thai identity. So a new noodle dish was created that used Thai ingredients and flavours, such as tamarind and fish sauce.

Pad, also spelled phad, means stir-fry, which is how the noodles are cooked. Before you do that, the dry rice noodles are soaked in water until softened and pliable.

If you look at the length of my recipe for pad Thai, you’ll see that soaking those noodles is just one of many steps required to make it. That, in turn, might explain why many folks prefer to enjoy it in, or order it to go, from their favourite local Thai restaurant.

But it can be a tasty and heavenly aromatic experience to make pad Thai at home, and things should go well if you follow a simple rule: Have all your ingredients prepared and ready to go before you fire up the stove. Pad Thai cooks quickly and you need to focus on that task.

Prawn Pad Thai

This is my version of pad Thai that combines techniques used in several recipes I reviewed. Make sure all your ingredients are pan-ready before you start to cook this full-flavoured noodle dish.

Preparation time: 30 minutes, plus time to soak the noodles

Cooking time: About 10 minutes

Makes: Two to three servings

For the noodles

1 (8 oz./250 gram) pkg. flat rice stick noodles

Place noodles in a large bowl. Now completely cover with warm water. Let noodles soak until they turn white and are pliable, about 60 minutes. Drain noodles and they are ready to use.

For the fried tofu

1 tsp vegetable or peanut oil

4 (1/2-inch thick, 1 1/2-inch wide and 2 1/2-inch long) pieces extra firm tofu, patted dry

Pour the oil into a non-stick skillet set over medium-high heat. When hot, add the tofu and fry until golden brown, about one minute per side. Set tofu on a cutting board and cool to temperature. Cut tofu, widthwise, in 1/2-inch strips.

For tamarind juice

2 Tbsp tamarind paste (see Note 1)

1/3 cup warm water

Place tamarind and water in a small bowl. Use your fingers to squeeze and stir the tamarind and blend it with the water, creating a dark brown, somewhat thick mixture. Set a fine sieve over another bowl. Strain the tamarind mixture through the sieve, pressing on it with the back of spoon to extract as much of the liquid from it as you can. You should get the 1/4 cup of tamarind juice needed for the next step of the recipe.

For the pad Thai sauce

1/4 cup tamarind juice

1/4 cup water

3 Tbsp golden brown sugar or palm sugar

3 Tbsp fish sauce

Make pad Thai sauce by combining ingredients in a small bowl.

The rest of pad Thai ingredients and to cook

2 Tbsp vegetable or peanut oil

10 large prawns, peeled and deveined (see Note 2)

1 to 2 large garlic cloves, minced

1 medium shallot, finely chopped

1/4 to 1 tsp red pepper flakes, or to taste (see Note 3)

1 Tbsp shrimp paste (see Note 1)

2 green onions, cut, widthwise, into 2-inch pieces

1/4 cup roasted, unsalted peanuts, coarsely chopped (divided)

2 large eggs, beaten

1 1/2 cups bean sprouts

2 to 3 lime wedges

Place the oil in a very large (at least 12-inch wide) skillet or large wok set over medium-high heat. When hot, add the prawns and cook one-and-a-half to two minutes per side, or until cooked. Lift prawns out of the pan and set on a plate.

Add the fried tofu, garlic, shallot, pepper flakes, shrimp paste, green onion and half the peanuts to the pan. Cook and stir until garlic is golden brown and aromatic, about one minute.

Add the noodles to the pan and pour pad Thai sauce over them. Keep tossing and stirring until the noodles have absorbed the liquid and the noodles are tender, about two to three minutes.

Push the noodles to one side of the pan. Pour the eggs into the other side of the pan. Scramble the eggs lightly and push them so they reach across that side of the pan. When eggs are about 50 per cent cooked, fold the noodles over them and let sit about 15 seconds to finish cooking the egg.

Add the bean sprouts and prawns to the pan and toss quickly to mix them and the cooked egg into the noodles. (You can add a touch of water to the pad Thai if the noodles are looking overly dry.)

Spoon the pad Thai into serving bowls and sprinkle with remaining peanuts. Serve with lime wedges for squeezing on top of the pad Thai.

Note 1: Packages of tamarind paste and jars of shrimp paste (I used Barrio Fiesta brand) are sold in the Asian foods aisle of some supermarkets and at Asian food stores. I bought both items at Fairway Market.

Note 2: Some grocery stores sell raw prawns, already shelled and deveined. They are most often sold frozen. Thaw before using. However, if you bought shell-on prawns that were not deveined, to remove the shell, hold the tip of tail of a prawn in one hand. Slip the thumb of your other hand under the shell between its swimmerets (little legs). Pull off the shell, but leave the very tip of the tail in place. With a small paring knife, make a lengthwise slit along the back of the shrimp. Now pull out, or rinse out with cold water, the dark vein. Pat shrimp dry and it’s ready to use.

Note 3: Adding a 1/4 tsp of red pepper flakes to the pad Thai will give it a mild level of spiciness, 1/2 tsp will give a medium spice level, and 1 tsp or more will make it quite spicy.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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