Pad Thai: everyone’s favourite Thai dish. So it seems anyway – I even know some people who eat Pad Thai to the exclusion of all other Thai dishes, ever. It’s not too hard to see why, though, since Pad Thai is such a great balance of flavours; there’s so much going on that it satisfies on multiple levels. It’s the sauce that does it – that sauce that is so mysterious at first taste – and it’s dead easy to reproduce perfectly.
That said, Pad Thai is still a fair amount of work to make. Not difficult work – just a lot of preparation, especially if you want to make your classic restaurant version featuring the works in terms of proteins and toppings. The thing to learn about this dish, though, is that you can do whatever you like with it. My version uses only shrimp and tofu, because adding chicken would have exceeded my effort limitations (if you want chicken, thinly slice a breast and add it right after the shrimp). Most of these ingredients can be varied slightly in amounts and proportions to suit your personal taste – if you like more or less peanuts, sprouts, by all means do what you like. The vital ingredients are the sauce base: tamarind, palm sugar, fish sauce and lime juice – these ingredients combine for a salty, tangy, sour, and sweet flavouring that is the essence of Pad Thai. Everything else is window dressing. Well, the peanuts are kind of important, too. In my opinion. And maybe the shrimp… and…
- 250g fresh rice noodles or 200g dried rice noodles
- 1/4 cup tamarind paste (looks like this in the store – get the concentrated paste, not the already-watered-down sauce, etc)
- 3 tbsp fish sauce (available almost everywhere now, in the “International” sections)
- 3 tbsp grated palm sugar or brown sugar
- 2 tbsp lime juice
- 1/3 cup vegetable oil
- 1 large clove of garlic, peeled
- 1 red shallot, peeled
- 8 large shrimps, no shells or veins, please
- 125g of firm tofu
- 1 egg
- 5-6 tbsp roasted peanuts (unsalted)
- 1 cup loosely packed bean sprouts
- 1-2 green onions
- 1 lime
Serve with: fresh Asian greens
What you will need: large pot to soak noodles, wok or large, deep pan, chef’s knife and cutting board, measuring cups and spoons, flat-edged utensil for stir-frying, small bowls for organizing ingredients, regular bowls for preparing the sauce and shrimp, serving plate
- Prepare all ingredients: Slice the green stalks of the green onions into thin rings (maybe 0.5-1 cm) and place into a small bowl. Grab a handful or two of bean sprouts, and put them in a bowl with cold water to rinse them, then drain off the water. Grind or chop the unsalted, roasted peanuts into a fine meal (meaning no big chunks, take a look at the peanut garnish in my photo), and place into a small bowl (alternatively, do what I did and buy salted peanuts by mistake, rinse the salt off, dry the nuts, dry-roast them until they have brown edges and are shiny, cool them on a plate, then grind them in a spice/nut grinder, phew). Chop the garlic and shallot finely and place into a bowl together. Defrost the shrimps, if needed, in cold water for 15 minutes. Press the tofu to release some of the water. Cut the tofu piece into strips about 2″ by 0.5″ by 0.5″ depending on the original shape. Fry the tofu in a few tsps of oil until it’s golden and crispy, with some browned bits. Alternatively, buy pre-fried tofu from a Chinese market. In the regular-sized bowl add the tamarind paste and 1/4 cup of warm-hot water, the lime juice and the fish sauce. With a fork, start mashing the paste. Eventually, the water will dissolve into the paste, and the whole mix will turn into a red/brown sludge – very smooth and liquid. If your paste has seeds in it, remove them now (you should have about 5 tbsp of tamarind water now). To the tamarind water, add the sugar, stir until dissolved. Mixed together, this is your Pad Thai sauce – keep it aside with the rest of the prepared ingredients. If you have fresh rice noodles, soak them in some cool water to break them up (drain off excess oil if present) and they’re good to go. With dry noodles, you’ll need to soak them in cold water for possibly up to an hour, but 30 minutes minimum. Keep the noodles (whichever kind) in cool water with the rest of prepared ingredients. That’s step one! For time maximizing, I perform these tasks in the following order: soak noodles, press tofu, add water to tamarind – let soak, cut tofu and fry over medium heat, while frying, mash tamarind with fish sauce and lime juice, defrost shrimp, roast and grind peanuts, chop shallot, garlic and green onion, mix sugar into final sauce, slice tofu, drain shrimp and pat them dry with a paper towel, heat up wok for step 2.
- We’ll wait for step 2 (which is now step 3). Jesus, did you read all of that up there? Well, you better, because the cooking time for this dish is approximately 6 minutes from start to finish and if your ingredients are not prepared before the garlic goes into the wok, you will be up shit creek with a burnt Pad Thai paddle (Paddle Thai? Anyone? No?). No one wants that. Make sure you’re ready before anything goes in the wok!
- Heat the wok over medium-high heat (5-6 on my dial), and add the oil.
- Once the oil is hot, here we go: add the garlic and shallot to the oil, and stir it gently. It will only take 10-30 seconds to brown depending on heat, so be ready to move on quickly.
- Next, in goes the dry-ish shrimp, then the tofu. Fry the shrimp for a minute or two, until the tails are red and the flesh is white and pink.
- Push the shrimp and tofu to the side of the wok, and crack the egg into the open space. Let it fry for a minute, then break it up (scraping the bottom of the wok) with your flat-edged spatula.
- Drain the rice noodles while the egg is cooking. Stir up the ingredients then add the rice noodles, and immediately stir them around in the wok. This will get them coated more evenly in oil and will prevent them from sticking too much, and will also mix the ingredients with the noodles.
- Add the Pad Thai sauce. Stir the whole mixture to get the sauce coating all the noodles.
- Add about half of the peanuts, bean sprouts and green onion and stir these into the noodles. Save the rest for garnishing.
- Once the sauce has been on the noodles for about 2-3 minutes, you’re done. Remove the noodles from the wok to a serving plate. Garnish with the remaining peanuts, sprouts and green onion. Slice the lime (the one at the end of the recipe list, which was very lonely and neglected until now) into quarters and line the plate with them. Noodle-eaters can add as much of these 4 things as they want. Me, I like extra lime juice and peanuts.
That’s it. I told you it’d go faster once you get past the prep stage. Now get eating!
Note to self: stop writing about food on days when you haven’t had breakfast yet.