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Recipe: Learning to make pad thai is well worth the effort

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Pad Thai with shrimp.

If you think about Thai food — which is something I do with alarming regularity — pad thai is probably what first comes to mind. That is as it should be. The noodle dish is most Americans’ introduction to Thai cuisine, an authentic street food easily accessible to the American palate.

It’s got noodles, it’s got shrimp (or chicken or pork or tofu), it’s got peanuts and eggs. It’s a little tart, a little sweet. It can be spicy, too, but doesn’t have to be.

It’s basically everything you want on a single plate, topped off with a squeeze of lime.

In Thailand, it may have started as a street food, but has been embraced in restaurants, too.

The version you will find in Thailand is similar to the American version, with a few notable differences. The Thai version is likely to be sweeter and spicier than the neutral American version. And if it is made with shrimp, the shrimp may still have heads attached.

Despite my insatiable fondness for pad thai, I had never made it until a few weeks ago. And so I set out to find a recipe that matched the perfect combination of tastes and textures that I had in my head.

The quest was harder than I thought. Some recipes had ketchup. Some were way too involved, with far too many ingredients. Others had so few ingredients that the taste could not possibly approach authenticity.

So I took a little from one recipe, a dash from another and maybe a technique from a third to create my own version.

But first, a word about a couple of the ingredients: Pad thai has a subtle undertone of tartness that comes primarily from tamarind, which you can find at Asian markets. I bought it in concentrated paste form, but you can also get it already mixed with water, sold either on the shelf or frozen.

The noodles should be flat rice noodles, about the width of linguine. These are not boiled: just soften them by soaking them in warm water for several minutes. These should be available in the Asian aisle of supermarkets, and certainly in an Asian market.

My recipe also calls for sweet or pickled radish. This brings a salty-sweet flavor to the dish, kind of like sweet pickles. It is by no means necessary for pad thai, but it is inexpensive and will give you an authentic Thai flavor.

Pad thai is a stir-fry, which means it all comes together quickly. For that reason, it is imperative to have all of your ingredients at hand before you begin.

Mine probably took less than 15 minutes to cook. It had just enough egg, just enough tamarind, just enough shrimp, just enough noodles and possibly not quite enough garlic.

But it was good. It was awfully good. I suspect it would be welcomed from Kanchanaburi in west Thailand, all the way over to Ubon Ratchathani in the east.


Adapted from “Cooking with Poo” by Poo Saiyuud Diwong (Urban Neighbours of Hope, 2011) and recipes by Seonkyoung Longest and Pailin Chongchitnant

  • 4 ounces dried flat rice noodles (or 8 ounces fresh)
  • 4 ounces firm tofu
  • 3-1/2 tablespoons peanut oil, divided
  • 1/4 pound peeled and deveined shrimp or chicken or combination
  • 1/2 small red onion, sliced thin
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon pickled sweet radish, finely chopped (optional, see notes)
  • 2 large eggs
  • 3 stalks green onion, sliced into 2-inch lengths
  • 1-1/2 cups bean sprouts, plus more for garnish
  • 3 tablespoons roasted peanuts, crushed or finely chopped, plus more for garnish
  • Lime wedges, for serving
  • Crushed red pepper or cayenne pepper (optional)
  • >> Tamarind sauce:
  • 1 teaspoon tamarind paste (see notes)
  • 2 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar

Soak noodles in warm water until soft, about 10 minutes. Wrap tofu in paper towels to remove excess moisture.

>> To make sauce: Combine tamarind paste, fish sauce, brown sugar and 1/4 cup water (if water is listed as the first ingredient in the tamarind pulp, use 1/4 cup of pulp and leave out the 1/4 cup of water). Stir until thoroughly dissolved; set aside.

Cut tofu into bite-sized cubes; set aside.

Place a wok or large skillet on high heat; add 1 tablespoon oil. Stir-fry shrimp and/or chicken until done and remove with slotted spoon.

Add 2 tablespoons oil to wok or skillet, allow to get hot and add tofu cubes, sliced red onion and garlic. Stir-fry until tofu is browned, 2 to 3 minutes.

Add noodles and tamarind sauce. Add sweet radish, if using. Stir-fry until noodles can be easily cut, 2 to 3 minutes. If sauce is sticking to pan, add water 2 tablespoons at a time and stir to loosen noodles and incorporate water into sauce.

Push mixture to one side of wok or pan. Add remaining 1/2 tablespoon oil to cleared side, if needed. Add eggs and let cook undisturbed until half-cooked. Mix together with other ingredients until scrambled.

Return shrimp and/or chicken to pan and stir to mix. Add sliced green onions, bean sprouts and peanuts. Cook a few minutes, stirring.

>> To serve: Place lime wedges on serving plate. Surround plate with more chopped peanuts, bean sprouts and small piles of crushed pepper or cayenne pepper, if using. Serves 2.

>> Notes: Tamarind paste is available at Asian markets. You can also find tamarind pulp (sometimes frozen), powdered tamarind soup base (reconstitute it for this recipe) and whole dried tamarind, still in the pods (pulp can be scraped from pods). Sweet radish may also be found in Asian markets.

Approximate nutritional information, per serving: 1,259 calories, 54 g total fat, 8 g saturated fat, 277 g cholesterol, 105 g protein, 85 g carbohydrate, 17 g sugar, 15 g fiber, 1,752 g sodium, 741 g calcium.

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