My Quest for the Best Pad Thai Recipe
I am obsessed with Pad Thai– it’s the very definition of umami, the perfect balance of hot, sweet, spicy, cool and crunchy. To me, Pad Thai is the perfect comfort food and the dish I crave when I’m tired, jet lagged or just plain stressed out.
I wish I could get my Pad Thai fix whenever the mood strikes but unfortunately I have no decent options in my neighborhood– despite having three Thai restaurants within a five minute walk. I never really understood why so many Thai restaurants just can’t seem to get Pad Thai right. Most versions I’ve tried are a too-sweet mess of overcooked noodles. What was the secret, I wondered, to mastering an authentic yet delicious Pad Thai?
The $1 Plate of Pad Thai that Set the Standard: A Bangkok Street Vendor’s Secrets Revealed
While I’ve enjoyed a few great Pad Thai dishes in the States, it wasn’t until I visited Bangkok that I tried Pad Thai that blew my mind. For barely a buck, I watched in awe as a Bangkok street vendor whipped up my Pad Thai from scratch, gave it a few shakes in a wok, and slid it onto a pretty plate. The vendor didn’t use any fancy equipment (a knife, a spatula and a wok) or follow some secret recipe to create this exceptional Pad Thai– it was all about the technique.
The difference between a mediocre Pad Thai and an exceptional Pad Thai is in the preparation. The best Bangkok street vendors cook every dish of Pad Thai to order– from chopping the vegetables to cooking the noodles, nearly everything is done a la minute (save the sauce, which is prepped separately in advance and expertly ladled out in just the right proportion).
The other factor that can make or break a Pad Thai is the balance— it’s impossible to simply follow a recipe to the letter and expect Pad Thai to come out perfectly balanced– variations in ingredients and brands require the cook to adjust the levels of sweetness, salt and tang to achieve that umami pop.
While I knew I could never exactly replicate the Pad Thai made by the Bangkok street vendor with years of experience behind them, I was certainly going to give it my best try. After observing the street vendors at work, I followed up by scouring the internet for recipes, and asking friends for their best Thai cooking tips. I ended up with a Pad Thai recipe that gets very close to my memories of Thai street food.
Authentic Street Vendor Pad Thai– the Ingredients Matter
A lot of Pad Thai recipes cut corners and omit essential ingredients for the sake of convenience. Yes, salted radishes and tamarind concentrate aren’t exactly easy to find, but you really can’t make a proper Pad Thai without them. Fortunately, a well-stocked Asian grocery store will carry most of these items, or just order them online. I found these ingredients all available on Amazon:
Salted preserved radishes
Rice Stick Noodles
Palm sugar (I’ve read that you can also use brown sugar as substitute, but I went for the real thing)
Thai fish sauce (You can use really use any supermarket fish sauce. I picked up a Thai one for added authenticity. To make a vegetarian version, you can experiment with using vinegar in lieu of fish sauce)
Fortunately, the fresh ingredients used in Pad Thai were readily available at my local store. Note: while my recipe only calls for standard green chives, when I spotted these yellow chives I threw some in for good measure.
The Best, Authentic Pad Thai Recipe, Bangkok Street Vendor Version
Ingredients for Pad Thai sauce
2 oz. palm sugar
1/4 cup fish sauce
1 tb tamarind concentrate
1/4 cup siracha sauce
Ingredients for Pad Thai
1 tb sliced shallot
1/4 cup fresh chives, cut into one inch long pieces (I mixed both yellow and green chives for added color)
1 tablespoon chopped salted radish
1/4 cup diced firm tofu
Rice stick noodles (about a small handful, 2-4 oz. per person)
1/4 cup plus 2 tbs water
1 cup fresh bean sprouts
1 tb sugar
2 tbs chopped roasted peanut
Grapeseed or canola oil for sauteing
Optional: 3/4 cup chicken (sliced into thin strips) or shrimp, uncooked
Note: Despite warnings against it (apparently making too many noodles at once can cause them to stick, though I didn’t have this problem myself), I doubled this recipe to make 4 servings (so if you are following the original version, keep in mind that the photos reflect my doubled version).
Instructions for Making the Pad Thai Sauce
- Prep your mise en place for all your ingredients for Pad Thai sauce.
- Make tamarind juice from the tamarind concentrate by adding 1 tc concentrate to 1/4 cup water, then stir.
- Measure and set aside fish sauce and siracha.
- In a small pan, melt the palm sugar on low. Once they the palm sugar has started to soften, add the fish sauce, tamarind juice, and siracha sauce. Continue to break up the palm sugar and stir. Note: the fish sauce will have a very strong smell as it heats up. Open the windows and turn on the vents and send anyone sensitive to smells out of the room. Do your best not to spill the fish sauce anywhere or the smell will linger.
- Bring the liquids and melted palm sugar to a boil, then remove from heat.
- Taste the liquid and adjust the amounts as needed to balance the flavors (different brands have different levels of potency and saltiness). The sauce will have a strong flavor on its own. If you’ve never made Pad Thai before it can be tricky to figure out the right balance.
- Pad Thai sauce can be made ahead and refrigerated for several days.
- Optional: If you are adding chicken, toss sliced chicken into the liquid mixture and marinade for 15-20 minutes (if using shrimp, it does not need to be marinated). Remove chicken. Because I am paranoid, I brought the marinade to a quick boil after removing the chicken (though this step may be unnecessary as the marinade cooks later). Put a little oil in wok, cook chicken or shrimp until cooked through, set aside.
Instructions for Make the Pad Thai Recipe, Bangkok Street Vendor Style
The key to getting the timing right is to make sure to prep all your ingredients in advance. I set out my mise en place and double checked to make sure I had everything ready to go.
- Rinse the radish under cold water, then squeeze out the water. Chop the radish, add a little bit of sugar to it.
- Soak the rice stick noodle in warm water for about 15 minutes (or follow the instructions on the package if they differ). Leave in water until you are ready to use, but do not over soak or you will end up with mushy noodles.
- Add 1 tb oil to wok, bring heat to medium-high.
- Add radish, tofu and shallots and saute for a few minutes until the aroma releases.
- Turn up the heat. Add soaked noodles, then add water. Stir-fry until noodles soften, about 5 minutes.
- Push noodles to side of wok, cook egg quickly.
- Add 1/4 cup of Pad Thai Sauce, stir and mix throughout.
- Add sugar, chives, bean sprouts and cooked shrimp or chicken (if using).
- Combine well for another minute or two.
- Place in two shallow bowls or plates. Serve with lime slices, chopped peanuts and additional chili sauce.
The result? Completely delicious, and close enough to the Bangkok street vendor Pad Thai that I’ll definitely make this recipe again.
Have you made Pad Thai before? What are your best tips?
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