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My “Top 5 Truths About Thai Food” and Pad Thai: One Year Later | ผัดไทย

On this day last year, I began blogging about Thai food.  When I started out, I had a fairly basic understanding of Thai cuisine that I had amassed from the boyfriend and his parents over the past several years.  But with the start of this blog, I pretty quickly began to branch out and try new recipes that I hadn’t been explicitly taught how to make.

One of the first dishes I tried to make on my own last year was pad Thai.  I didn’t realize at the time how ambitious I was being!  I’ve since learned that pad Thai is actually one of the harder Thai dishes to get right.  It requires not just a good recipe, but also a good understanding of Thai cooking techniques, ingredients, and tastes that most novices just don’t have.  I certainly didn’t – I remember experimenting with this dish for weeks before finally producing a dish that the boyfriend deemed “acceptable”.

Through these experiments, I learned a lot about making pad Thai.  And over the last year, I’ve learned even more about cooking Thai food in general.  So in celebration of this blog’s one year anniversary, I’ve compiled a list of the top 5 things I’ve learned about Thai food over the last year. 

My “Top 5 Truths About Thai Food”: 

1.  Thai food is not just curry. 

When I tell people that I have a Thai food blog, their immediate reaction is always, “I love curry!”.  And as much as I love curry too, I have to tell you that it really is not the mainstay of a Thai meal.  In fact, I can count on my hands the number of times the boyfriend and I have eaten curry over the last year.  We more commonly eat stirfried vegetables, steamed fish, and soup.  And when we do have curry, it’s eaten alongside these other dishes, not as a stand-alone dish.  This, I think, is more representative of how Thai people really eat.

2.  Great Thai dishes start with great Thai ingredients.

Over the last year, I’ve seen a lot of recipes for Thai food.  There are some great ones out there… and then there are some that you look at and just know they won’t turn out.  Why?  Because they suggest substitutions for hard to find ingredients – like ginger for galangal, lime peel for kaffir lime leaves, and ketchup for tamarind paste.  You just can’t expect to get good quality results if you don’t start with the proper ingredients.  So instead of spending time tweaking these recipes, I’ve found it much more worthwhile to put my efforts towards finding a sustainable source of these more elusive ingredients.

3.  Thai flavors are bold, never timid.

This is one that I struggled with at first, I think because Thai flavors are so unique from those of any other cuisine.  It took a little while for my tastebuds to adapt to these flavors and then some more time to build up to stronger and stronger versions of them.  Now, when the boyfriend’s dad tells me that a dish needs more flavor, I’m much more amenable to adding another handful of chilis, another quarter cup of fish sauce, and squeezing the juice from an entire lime into the pot to achieve those characteristically bold “in your face” Thai flavors.

4.  Cooking Thai food requires the use of your tastebuds.

It’s true.  Cooking Thai food is an active process that constantly requires you to taste what you’re making and adjust the flavors accordingly.  If something is too sweet, salty, sour, or hot, you have to be able to correct for those flavors.  And generally, you have to do this very quickly as many dishes are cooked over super high heat within a matter of minutes.  This process of tasting and adjusting is a skill that the boyfriend learned early on, but I have managed to pick up over time (and if I can, so can you!).  

5.  You can’t just dump peanut sauce on top of a dish and call it Thai.

When I ask others what they think of when they think of Thai food, I commonly get responses involving peanut sauce (vegetables and pineapple with peanut sauce, noodles with peanut sauce, beef covered in peanut sauce, etc).  I think it’s safe to say after a year of cooking Thai food that none of these are typical Thai dishes.  I’m not even sure they’re Thai dishes at all, although I can certainly understand the temptation to smother anything and everything with this delicious sauce. 

So with this knowledge and a year’s worth of experience making and tasting Thai food behind me, I decided to give pad Thai another shot.  Last year, my two biggest stumbling blocks were 1) the rehydration of the noodles and 2) the balance of flavors in the pad Thai sauce.  

The noodles were difficult because, as I’ve since learned, I wasn’t rehydrating them enough beforehand.  If you start with hard noodles, it’s going to take much too long to cook them in the wok with all of the other ingredients.  The opposite is also true though, if you start out with noodles that are too soft, they’ll turn into a gloppy mess when cooking. 

So this year I performed some scientific experiments with a handy kitchen timer and found the perfect rehydration time for my noodles in my kitchen is 6 minutes in a pot of very hot water.  I’d encourage you to do the same experiment at your home and see what works for you. 

Whereas the noodles can be figured out with a bit of scientific experimentation, the sauce is harder to master, at least for me.  This is because there isn’t a set recipe for it.  You start with equal parts tamarind paste, palm sugar, and fish sauce, but because there is such variation in the sourness of the tamarind, you have to adjust the other ingredients by taste alone to get a perfectly balanced sauce.  The first pad Thai sauce I made last year elicited a very emphatic “ugh!” from the boyfriend. Fortunately, after a year of tasting Thai food, making this sauce has gotten easier for me, which means I don’t get quite so many disgusted faces from the boyfriend these days. 

Now that I’ve gotten these two fundamental things figured out, I can consistently make a pad Thai that the boyfriend approves of.  My last attempt even got a 5-star rating!  Of course, there’s always room for improvement.  Perhaps over the next year, I’ll work on incorporating some of the more traditional ingredients like salted radish and shrimp paste into my pad Thai.  For now, though, as long as the boyfriend is happy with this dish, I am too. 

 

My “Top 5 Truths About Thai Food” and Pad Thai: One Year Later | ผัดไทย

Makes 1 serving

My “Top 5 Truths About Thai Food” and Pad Thai: One Year Later | ผัดไทย

Ingredients

    Pad Thai Sauce
  • 1/4 cup tamarind paste
  • 1/4 cup fish sauce
  • 1/4 cup palm sugar
  • Pad Thai Noodles
  • 1 teaspoon garlic, chopped
  • 1/4 cup tofu, sliced into small rectangular pieces
  • 3-4 medium sized shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 1 egg
  • 2 ounces dry medium size rice noodles
  • 3-4 Tablespoons Pad Thai sauce
  • 1/4 cup bean sprouts
  • 1/4 cup garlic chives, cut into 1" pieces
  • 2 teaspoons roasted peanuts, chopped
  • lime slices, roasted chili flakes, and sugar as accompaniments

Instructions

    To Make Pad Thai Sauce:
  1. Make tamarind paste by mixing 1 cup of wet tamarind with 2 cups of hot water. Mash with a potato masher until the tamarind forms a paste and then strain to get all of the seeds and veins out.
  2. Mix about 1/4 cup each of the tamarind paste, fish sauce, and palm sugar together. Taste. The sauce should be equally tart, salty, and sweet. If it's not, adjust these ingredients until it's nicely balanced. Leftovers of the sauce save well in the fridge for your next pad Thai.
  3. To Make Pad Thai Noodles:
  4. Prepare your pad Thai sauce and all other ingredients. Once you start cooking, you won't have time to wash, chop, or mix anything.
  5. Heat a pot of water on medium heat until small bubbles appear on the bottom. Blanch the rice noodles in this water for 6 minutes.
  6. Meanwhile, heat a wok to medium-high heat. Add a bit of oil and wait until it's hot. Then add the tofu, shrimp, and garlic and cook until they're done (best to cook tofu and shrimp first, then add the garlic to avoid burning it). By the time they're done, your rice noodles should also be done.
  7. Drain the rice noodles and immediately put into the wok with the garlic, tofu, and shrimp. Add the pad Thai sauce and incorporate.
  8. Taste. If the noodles are too bland, add more sauce. If the noodles are too hard, add water, a little at a time, until they're just about perfect (they'll be on the stove for another 2 minutes or so after this point so take that cooking time into account).
  9. Move everything to the side of the wok and scramble an egg on the other side. Once it's done, incorporate it with the noodles.
  10. Add the bean sprouts, garlic chives, and peanuts. Stir fry for just a few seconds more until the chives are barely wilted. Take off the heat immediately.
  11. Serve with lime slices, roasted chili flakes, and sugar on the side. Enjoy!

Recipe adapted from ChezPim.com and Thai Street Food

16 comments… add one
  • Ted June 8, 2015, 12:15 am

    Love #5. I find it difficult to describe Thai food to others and I ate it all my life.

  • Rachel July 11, 2012, 8:43 pm

    Hi Alex! The tamarind paste should be roughly the consistency of maple syrup, somewhat thick but still pourable.

  • Alex July 11, 2012, 11:10 am

    I used this recipe last night having never made Pad Thai before, and it turned out awesome! I was surprised since I know how hard it can be to do well, but your recipe and tips were super helpful. I just used regular sugar instead of palm sugar, so I’m sure it’ll be better next time. One question I have is about what the consistency of the tamarind paste should be after you mash the tamarind with the water. I tried looking for pictures online but could only find pre-made tamarind paste. Mine was really liquidy – is it supposed to be thick?
    Thanks so much for your posts!

  • bastian June 2, 2012, 7:31 am

    i dont think mixing tamarind sauce, fish sauce and brown sugar will make the taste correct, if u try the pad thai from the street vendor you will notice thats what inside their sauce not just simple 3 ingredients. and believe me most of them use MSG too.
    but my padthai sauce has atleast 7 ingredients, and the taste is wonderfull

  • Sarah April 13, 2012, 3:06 pm

    Rarely do I find a blog post that I thoroughly enjoy. This was informative, inviting and had me reading until the end. Love your blog and will definitely come back for more. Thanks for sharing.

  • Rachel March 14, 2012, 10:50 pm

    Hi Diana! I’ve found it’s easiest to grate the circles of palm sugar with a cheese grater into small, soft shavings. Then I loosely pack the shavings into a measuring cup and use according to the recipe. The sauce should last for several weeks in the fridge. Hope this helps!

  • Diana March 14, 2012, 12:07 am

    Thank u for your recpies! This is my go to site when I want to make Thai food! Couple questions about this dish..I bought palm sugar but it is the hard kind and they are cut up into medium size circles..how much should I use? Also how long does the left over sauce last in the fridge? Thx! Diana

  • Rachel January 9, 2012, 5:49 pm

    Hi GeeGee, I’ve seen some recipes that use vinegar in place of tamarind (like this one: http://johndlee.hubpages.com/hub/How-to-Make-Pad-Thai-with-Shrimp-Pad-Thai-Kung-Recipe). I haven’t tried it myself, but this may be worth a shot if you can’t find tamarind locally. Of course, there’s always the option of buying tamarind online too if it comes down to it (my pantry page has a link to one source). Best of luck!

  • GeeGee January 8, 2012, 1:44 pm

    I live in rural Ontario, and can never find Tamarind. Is there something else I can use, or should I just give up?

  • Rachel January 5, 2012, 9:34 pm

    Thanks, Alicia! I’m glad it turned out for you!

  • Alicia January 4, 2012, 7:50 pm

    I made this tonight and it was excellent! I will continue to tinker with the sauce, it was a little salty and I couldn’t find palm sugar (I improvised with brown sugar and molasses) but still very good.
    I’m looking forward to trying more of your recipes…

  • Rachel October 26, 2011, 9:02 pm

    Beth, mine didn’t turn out the first attempt either… I think more than anything it takes practice and experience – good luck with your second attempt!

  • Rachel October 26, 2011, 9:02 pm

    Cindy, that book looks really interesting! I’m curious to see the pad Thai recipe in it.

  • lavanya October 25, 2011, 2:51 pm

    First time here. good info on thai.
    I’m Indian and like you said people recognise indian food with curry. and just like in thai, curry is not a standalone dish and eaten with something else in India too. I so much hate when I say I’m an indian and people say I love curry which they make in Indian Foods. The fact is there are a lots of curry in India. It is not any one specific dish.
    Thanks for the thai info- I love thai food.

  • cindy October 24, 2011, 5:30 am

    The best pad Thai recipe I’ve found is in the book Hungry Monkey. I had a thai expat teach me how to make it once in a Thai restaurant, but I still couldn’t get it. Hungry Monkey’s recipe is very similar to this one. I’ve never tasted my sauce before though. I’ll have to start doing that. Thanks for all the detail. Good stuff.

  • Beth McCurdy October 23, 2011, 3:54 pm

    I love Pad Thai. This looks absolutely amazing. I tried making it years ago and failed miserably. LOL> I need to give it another try and follow your recipe.

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