Every year, I return to Thailand in search of recipes, books, kitchen tools, and to steep myself in the cooking traditions of my birthplace. On one of those trips, I made it my mission to learn to make pad thai from the best vendors in Bangkok. That tangle of noodles, stirfried with an array of sweet, sour, salty, and spicy ingredients, is a national favorite. It’s a one-dish meal, and Thais eat it any time, from breakfast to midnight supper, with iced tea, iced coffee, limeade, or beer.
Vendors guard their secrets jealously, but I found a restaurateur who apprenticed me at the pad thai stand in front of his restaurant. Orders came rapidly from a long line of regular patrons. It was hard to listen and cook at the same time—you make pad thai one order at a time, adding ingredients in quick succession. Shouts of “no chiles, lots of sugar, peanuts, and bean sprouts,” “everything, with an extra egg,” and “no dried shrimp, but lots of bean sprouts and chives” continued as I tried to keep the orders straight and not burn them.
At my house in southern California, I cook in an outdoor kitchen that’s under a lean-to, like the one I remember from childhood. And even when I make pad thai for a group, I do it one order at a time, as I learned to in Bangkok. I recommend that you do it that way, too. You’ll have better control over the noodles, and your technique will improve with each turn at the wok.
Use easy substitutions for hard-to-find ingredients
Certain ingredients are essential for making a proper pad thai (pronounced PAD TIE), so you’ll need to make a trip to an Asian grocer or to the Asian food section of a well-stocked supermarket. If neither of those are convenient, you can order ingredients by mail. Some ingredients for pad thai have familiar substitutes.
Rice noodles are the base for pad thai. They’re made from rice flour and range from vermicelli-thin strands to wider noodles. At the Asian market where I shop in San Diego, I buy fresh ones, but dried rice noodles are much easier to find, and they’re easy to use. They’ll need a soak in warm water for 15 minutes until they bend without breaking.
After soaking the rice noodles, drain, press them dry with a towel so they don’t get gummy, and cover them with a damp towel to keep them moist but not wet. (Wet noodles would make the oil in the wok spatter.)
Condiments add a complex texture and taste. Thai vinegar adds authentic tang, but you can substitute rice or distilled white vinegar, both of which are slightly sharper. Dried baby shrimp are both sweet and salty (but surprisingly, they don’t taste fishy). You don’t need to soak baby shrimp for pad thai; unsoaked, they’re pleasantly chewy. Salted cabbage adds a salty-earthy taste that might remind you of salt-packed capers; it needs a quick rinse before use. You’ll recognize it by its glazed brown ceramic jar. Chinese chives give authentic pungency, but if you can’t get them, scallions are fine.
Fresh banana blossoms add a crunchy garnish that’s traditional. They’re difficult to find, and Belgian endive is a good alternative. You might see pickled banana blossoms on an Asian grocer’s shelf, but don’t buy them; they won’t give the crunch you’re after. Bitter-sour Asian pennywort is a traditional pad thai garnish. It’s also hard to find, so use arugula instead.
Take time to organize so you can assemble in a flash
There’s a lot of time involved in getting all the ingredients together for this dish, but mainly it’s just a matter of chopping, slicing, and measuring. Once it’s all prepped, pad thai comes together fast over high heat. Here’s how to make it go smoothly.
Prepare all your ingredients ahead. Once prepped, line them up in order of addition, close at hand. Line up the oil, garlic, soaked noodles, water, vinegar, fish sauce, fried tofu, baby shrimp, salted cabbage, peanuts, chili powder, sugar, bean sprouts, scallions, and egg, as well as the ingredients for the garnish. I use a collection of little bowls and plates; sometimes I even make traditional bowls by sewing banana leaves together. If you run out of dishes for your ingredients, use teacups and saucers. The point is for the ingredients to be organized and easy to grab.
Use a large wok, skillet, or griddle. The larger the cooking vessel, the more room you’ll have to combine ingredients and cook the noodles evenly. I use an anodized-aluminum wok, which heats up beautifully and doesn’t need seasoning. If you have an electric stove, use a big skillet or a wok with a flat base. Whichever pan you select, the important thing is to have good contact with your heat source. Don’t use a wok ring, even though it will mean steadying the wok with your hand.
Be sure to use enough heat. If the heat is too low, the noodles will get soggy; if it’s too high, however, the noodles will clump and tangle.
Use two spatulas to stir-fry. It might be tempting to grab your tongs, but don’t; their sharp edges will break the noodles. I like wok paddles— shallow shovels with curved edges that make it easy to scoop and shake the noodles to separate them as you stir-fry. If the noodles need loosening, add a tablespoon or two of water.
Pad thai variations are based on personal preference and regional style; there’s no fixed formula. I like simple, classic pad thai with a good balance of sweet, sour, spicy, and salty flavors.
Sources for Asian ingredients
Asian grocers and supermarkets with well-stocked Asian foods sections will carry the ingredients for pad thai (look for A Taste of Thai brand). Or you can order ingredients from the following sources:
736 NE Martin Luther King Blvd.
Portland, OR 97232
A Taste of Thai
PO Box AX
Old Saybrook, CT 06475
Oriental Food Market & Cooking School
2801 West Howard St.
Chicago, IL 60645
The Oriental Pantry
423 Great Rd.
Acton, MA 01720
PO Box 524
Jackson Hole, WY 83001