The pad Thai at Siamese Bay in Monterey.
When perusing exotic menu items at Thai restaurants, Americans tend to gravitate toward Pad Thai, a simple, dry noodle dish with authentic roots dating back to ancient Siam. But this dish would never have reached cult status on the streets of Bangkok, or crossed the oceans to America for that matter, if not for some fierce nationalism, political maneuvering and clever marketing.
In the years before World War II, Thailand’s Prime Minister Luang Phibunsongkhramget launched a campaign to increase Thai nationalism and centralization. To make more rice available for export, he branded a popular Chinese-style noodle dish as “Pad Thai” (“pad” meaning stir-fry). His campaign educated the poor in the production of rice noodles, and soon the dish was being prepared in every small cafe and street cart in the country.
It quickly became a widespread staple and one of the national dishes of Thailand. Traditional Pad Thai is dry and light-bodied, with a fresh, complex, balanced flavor. It should be reddish-brown in color, not bright red and oily as seen in many Americanized restaurants. Pad Thai includes stir-fried rice noodles, eggs, fish sauce, scallions, bean sprouts, crushed peanuts, red chili pepper, lime and a variety of optional ingredients, including shrimp, chicken or tofu.
There are as many ways to make Pad Thai as there are moods of a cook. Whatever the combinations or ingredient list, it’s important to retain the tell-tall flavors of hot, sour, sweet and salty so characteristic of Thai cuisine.
Chef Vanisee stirs the pad Thai at Siamese Bay.
When it comes to flavor and authenticity, I like the Pad Thai at Siamese Bay in Monterey. I order it medium spicy (enough to draw a small pool of tears), with shrimp and ground peanuts. Owner Sam Taisaeng says it’s a top seller, and quite easy to make. It’s a version his wife and restaurant cook Vasinee learned at culinary school in Bangkok, where it’s quite common to get a bowl of such noodles on the street for the equivalent of $1.
Vasinee starts with an extremely hot wok, adding a bit of vegetable oil. Then she puts six cleaned, butterflied shrimp in a bowl with one egg. She dumps that mixture into the hot oil, quickly adding one ladle of her homemade pad Thai sauce (a secret mixture containing, among others, vinegar, paprika, sugar and salt). The shrimp cooks and the egg scrambles, and she adds the softened rice noodles, simmering until the liquid is absorbed. The plate is garnished with strings of red cabbage and carrots, bean sprouts, cilantro and ground peanuts.
Annabelle Liscomb in the kitchen at the American Legion in Seaside.
Thai-born Anna Liscomb of Louisiana Thaibelle (read more on Liscomb in this week’s Grub Hunter column in The Herald) makes a quick-and-easy version of Pad Thai served at the American Legion Post in Seaside from Friday through Monday. Liscomb shaves steps off the process by using bottled Pad Thai sauce, a concoction that includes sugar, tamarind, soy sauce, fish sauce, tomato paste, salt, vinegar, lime juice and other ingredients to effectively mimic the authentic, labor-intensive process.
She does not use eggs, but is liberal with condiments of bean sprouts, raw red cabbage, cilantro and crushed peanuts. For those who prefer it spicy, she adds ground chile pepper. Her recipe follows.
Finally, I have included an easy-to-follow recipe from one of my culinary heroes, Ruth Reichl, former editor of Gourmet and former heralded restaurant critic for The New York Times in the 1990s. Continue reading