There's the sweetness of the tamarind-based sauce.
The sourness of a squirt of a lime. The crunchy texture of mashed peanuts. The saltiness of nam pla (fish sauce). The softness of the rice noodles.
Take a bite into a plate of Pad Thai — one of America’s most popular Thai dishes — and your taste buds will be pleasured with all of this and more.
It's what makes Thai cuisine great, this unique blend of texture and flavors — which oftentimes includes spicy, too.
Some say Pad Thai isn’t real Thai food, just as crab Rangoon and orange chicken aren’t real Chinese food.
While it's true it's sweeter than typical Thai food, Pad Thai is actually available in Thailand. When I lived in Bangkok, I saw people making it in woks on little boats in floating markets. Once the prep work is done, it’s just a matter of stirring it over heat. It’s quick, filling and generally a crowd-pleaser.
Pad Thai originated during World War II, when Thailand was suffering from a rice shortage. The government encouraged Thai people to eat more noodles instead, so Pad Thai took off.
There are many ways to customize a plate of Pad Thai — just as there are many ways to customize spaghetti and meatballs — but the essential ingredients remain the same.
And it’s easier and cheaper than you’d think to make Pad Thai at home. Especially if you cheat a little and use Pad Thai sauce ready-to-go from the Thai Kitchen brand, found in most grocery stores across the U.S. I was able to easily find all the ingredients I needed in one quick trip to the store in Lincoln.
The ready-to-go sauce is a blend of sugar, tamarind, tomato, garlic, red chili pepper, pickled radish, shallots and fish sauce.
Fish sauce, a common ingredient in Thai food, is made of anchovy extract and salt. It often gives recipes just the right kick it needs to make it more Thai-tasting. I use Squid Brand, a common one, but any brand will do.
You can pick your own protein, but I love Crispy Fried Tofu. I’ve included my own recipe for that here alongside my Easy Pad Thai recipe. If you serve it at your next dinner party, I’m sure it’ll dazzle your friends and family. It's fun to make, especially if you divide the prep work among people.
Note: If you often order Pad Thai from restaurants, you’ll notice I didn’t include bean sprouts. I’m not a fan, but if you like ‘em, a handful or two can be added in step two.
Crispy Fried Tofu
14 ounces of firm tofu
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon fish sauce
2 pinches salt
1 pinch of black pepper
2 tablespoon vegetable oil
Cut into tofu into finger-sized rectangles (similar shape to French fries). On a frying pan of your choice — I prefer a 12-inch cast iron skillet — pour in vegetable oil. Over medium-high heat, fry the tofu and flip as needed. As the tofu begins to get crispy, add salt, black pepper and garlic powder. After about 15 minutes, tofu should be at optimum crispiness. At that point, add fish sauce, stir for a minute, then move fried tofu to a serving plate.
Easy Pad Thai
14 ounces of rice noodles
8-ounce jar of Thai Kitchen brand Pad Thai sauce
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 large onion (or 2 small onions)
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 bunch of green onions
2 handfuls of cilantro
2 handfuls of roasted peanuts (optional for anyone with allergies)
14-ounces of Fried Tofu (recipe above)
1. First, the prep work. Boil the rice noodles in about 4-5 cups of boiling water and a pinch of salt over medium-high heat for no longer than 10 minutes. Any longer than that and the noodles will be too soft. Drain in colander and shower with cold water. Make Fried Tofu (can substitute with protein of choice — chicken is popular in Pad Thai). Cut the onions and the green onions so they’re about 2-3 inches in length. Put peanuts in a small plastic bag and crush it with your tool of choice — I like using a rolling pin or the bottom of a wine bottle.
2. If you’re using a 12-inch cast iron skillet like me, this recipe is best cooked in two batches. Over medium heat, pour in 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil. Cook half the onions on one side of the pan, and scramble two eggs on the other half of the pan. Add one tablespoon of fish sauce to the onions and eggs as you’re stirring.
3. Next, add half the rice noodles (7 ounces), half the Pad Thai sauce (4 ounces) and half the green onions. Stir until sauce sufficiently blends into the ingredients. The last thing to add on the stove is Fried Tofu, so it retains its crispiness.
4. Move food to a serving plate. Sprinkle crushed peanuts and serve with a wedge (or two!) of lime and a handful of cilantro to garnish.
5. Repeat steps 2 through 4 with the remaining ingredients.