Pad Thai is the most popular dish on the menu at most Thai restaurants, for good reason. For a few bucks, you get comforting soft noodles and herbs, spiked with chewy tofu and bathed in savory, sour and sweet flavors, topped with crunchy peanuts. For the meatless diner, Tofu Pad Thai is a winning pick.
But pad Thai isn’t some ancient Thai peasant dish.
Back in 1939, Plaek Phibunsongkhram became prime minister in a coup of what was then Siam. He wanted to keep the French and British at bay by projecting a modern, unified image, so he changed the name to Thailand, standardized the language and made it law that the public had to wear modern Western clothing.
And he decided that pad Thai would be the national dish.
The irony of the selection is that the prime minister picked a Chinese dish as the first fast food of Thailand, mainly because it was cheap and nutritious. The full name of our fave noodle is “Kway Teow Phat Thai” which translates to “Stirfried (Chinese) rice noodles Thai Style.” He printed the recipe and promoted it to street vendors and home cooks, with a slogan: “Noodles are lunch.”
Now diners around the world consider pad Thai to be the dish by which a Thai restaurant should be judged. In Thailand, it’s strictly street food.
The dish is easily made meatless. Many restaurants prepare it with fish sauce, but can switch to soy sauce. So if you are avoiding fish, ask for the substitute. Making pad Thai at home is easy, and you can customize the dish to suit your palate. Vegans can skip the eggs.
In my recipe, the tofu is crumbled and cooked until quite browned, for a chewy texture. I also used pea shoots instead of the usual (boring) mung bean sprouts, but you can use either. There’s the option to use the traditional tamarind, which is available as a paste in better-stocked markets, or you can use lime juice instead.
From there, you can always add your own touches, like more or less red pepper flakes, or a handful of slivered carrot or cabbage.
Because you are the prime minister in your own kitchen!
Robin Asbell is a cooking instructor and author of “Big Vegan,” “The Whole Grain Promise” and “Great Bowls of Food.” Find her at robinasbell.com.