by Kristian Uzhca

Pad Thai with chicken from Republic, NYC

Pad Thai with chicken from Republic, NYC Source: Kristian Uzhca

“Hi! Can I place an order for delivery? Perfect. One Duck Pad Thai with extra noodles and one Chicken Pad Thai, extra chives and beansprouts, but no peanuts. Thank you!” It’s pretty common to hear that a couple has their song, but on our first date she and I had found our dish. That particular order became a way to demarcate time as we experienced it. It was how we celebrated each month together, cheered that semester was over, or sat in silence as we mourned our losses. Pad Thai’s delicate balance of sweet, savory, sour, and spicy tastes and smell became a symbol of love and a way for me to travel to memories of particular moments in my life. But I was not fair with the attention I gave pad Thai. Though I had not direct cultural connection to it, this dish held a unique position in my life, and I had never considered its origins, its history, or its significance to Thailand. When asked to think about an artifact dish to explore in our classwork, pad Thai was an easy choice. I knew nothing substantive about this dish, but at the same time I felt an intimate connection with its taste, texture, and its presentation.

Looking back at my first experience with this dish, I distinctly remember visiting Rohm Thai on a recommendation from a friend. The restaurant was small and dimly lit. It had a certain air that informed you that this was a family owned establishment. I remember seeing chopsticks on the table and anxiously trying to remember how to hold them, looking over at other tables for some guidance. I was even more puzzled when I read the menu. Our server probably understood that this was my first experience in a Thai restaurant so he suggested the pad Thai. It turned out to be an excellent suggestion, and one that shaped my experience with food onwards, but in that moment I just had a couple of questions: What’s a rice noodle, and why are there peanuts and a lime on my plate?

The smell was powerful and inviting, and as I made my way through the dish I tried to experiment all the new flavors pairings I was presented with. First a bite of the soft noodle and sauce, then a hard squeeze of lime to add a sour flavor, and finally mixing in the crushed peanuts to add a granular texture to the soft rice noodles. I am still impressed by how much I enjoyed a dish that was comprised of mostly unfamiliar ingredients at the time.

Chives, beansprouts, duck, and rice noodles were introduced to me all at once and I learned to love them. I began to eat these ingredients on a regular basis as I became familiar with other Southeast Asian cuisines. Rice noodles and beansprouts started to become themes even in my home cooking. This familiarity helped highlight what made pad Thai special: the sauce. Pad Thai’s ingredients can be reimagined in many different ways, but the tamarind-based sauce is what really brings the dish together. My only experience with tamarind at this point was as a Mexican agua fresca, so I had always assumed that it was a New World. In reality, tamarind is native to the rainforests of Africa, but trade flowing out of the continent helped spread the popularity of tamarind to Southeast Asia and the New World[1]. My conceptualization of the fruit was also being challenged by the taste it added to the sauce. Agua fresca is a sweet beverage, but in Thai cuisine tamarind is used for its tart flavor. This “new” way of preparing tamarind seemed to contradict the palpable sweetness in the sauce, so I dug a little deeper into some recipes and found that palm sugar is used to balance out the tart tamarind and the savory fish sauce[2]. Interestingly, each ingredient is widely used across Southeast Asia, but fish sauce is believed to have originated in Europe and popularized by the Romans. Fish sauce’s Roman ancestor, garum, is thought to have found its way to Asia through trade routes, where it eventually differentiated into the recognizable fish sauce we know today[3].

While the sauce expanded what I understood about flavor, the rice noodles, beansprouts, and crushed peanuts played enormous roles in helping identify what I enjoy about the textures I look for in my food. The rice noodles had a chewy mouth feel, but they were not so soft that they immediately fell apart. Together, the beansprouts, chives, and peanuts were a foil to the soft rice noodle. The fresh vegetables mixed in very well and stuck along the long edge of the noodles and added a fresh crispness to each bite. The crushed peanuts added a distinct, but not overwhelming flavor, and its biggest contribution to the dish is a granular mouth feel that adds a sharper crunch when compared to the vegetables. Pad Thai’s complex, but distinct flavor and texture set a new standard for my food expectations in New York City.

I was hooked on pad Thai after my first experience, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that I jumped on Seamless to order pad Thai at least twice a week for about a year. Among the different restaurants I explored there was variation in vegetables or protein, but the dish was always garnished with peanuts and lime, and there was a huge range for spiciness. This would be one of the first observations that would eventually show that the ‘Thainess’ of pad Thai is more complicated than it seems. Once I began some formal research I found that limes probably originated in Southeast or mainland Asia[4], but peanuts and chili flakes, used to add spice, are both products of the New World. Chili peppers and peanuts were first brought to Europe from South America[5],[6]. Rice noodles have its origins in China and are widely used in Vietnam[7]. My favorite ingredient in the dish, beansprouts (mung bean), is thought to be native to modern day India[8]. Even the technique of stir-frying the noodles is rooted in Chinese culture. Individually, most of the ingredients seem to have their own story outside of Southeast Asia, which could be used as a challenge to the ‘Thainess’ of pad Thai. But, the common attitude among Thai people seems to roll with the punches. Sirichalerm Svasti, a celebrity chef and member of the Thai royal family supports the idea that noodles and stir-frying came to Thailand with Chinese immigrants, but holds that the flavor profile of the sauces and pastes is true to Thailand[9]. His Excellency Nitya Pibulsonggram, son of former Prime Minister Plaek Pibulsonggram (also known as Phibun) seems to agree with the Chinese immigration theory, but supports that the popularization of the dish, driven by his father, was a pro-Thai movement[10].

In 1938, Phibun became the Prime Minister and Commander of the Royal Siamese Army, and as such, he invested heavily in modernizing Thailand to elevate the country’s global status to appeal to and compete with western countries. Aligned with this goal, Phibun launched campaigns to promote Thai nationalism. He passed several mandates that required Thai people to forgo Chinese goods for Thai manufactured goods, which included agricultural goods like rice and rice noodles. During the 1930s and 40s, in an effort to build nationalism, nurture the domestic economy, and promote a healthier diet, Phibun introduced pad Thai as Thailand’s national dish. Pibulsonggram used the government’s resources to support street vendors by distributing a singular pad Thai recipe and subsidizing start-up costs of the business. This led to widespread development of a now common sight, a Thai vendor selling fresh pad Thai from his food cart. ‘Noodle lunches’ became increasingly common and pad Thai surpassed Chinese wheat noodle dishes in popularity[11]. Whether or not Phibun’s campaign for nationalism was truly successful is debatable, but he is credited with codifying the first recipe for pad Thai, which helped spread the dish across the country and eventually around the world. A global survey by CNN found that pad Thai falls within the top five most delicious foods around the world[12] (CNN). Pad Thai has come to represent a country and culture in a similar way that tacos remind us of Mexico, or sushi reminds us of Japan. In a video review of Thai restaurants in Los Angeles, celebrated Thai chef Kris Yenbamroong states that the quality of a restaurant’s pad Thai is a key way to gauge the overall quality of the menu[13]. I’m happy to have inadvertently heeded that advice while exploring restaurants in New York and London.

london pad thai

Pad Thai with chicken from our street vendor in Waterloo, London, UK Source: Instagram, @onceuponameal

The idea that pad Thai was more important than just a pleasurable gustatory sensation only came into my head when I went crazy looking for a good plate of pad Thai in London. I had to acknowledge that this dish was now part of my idea of “home” because I felt homesick for the first time in years simply because I missed these noodles so much. I walked all over London looking for a familiar taste, but I found an experience that added nuance and authenticity to my pad Thai experience. A couple of blocks away from King’s College Waterloo campus is St. John’s Church. The building is beautiful, but small by European church standards. On Wednesdays there was a small food market with five or six vendors selling everything from burritos to my coveted pad Thai. The man working alone charged a modest price of three pounds for a serving of pad Thai, four pounds if you asked for shrimp. The simple plate of pad Thai, served in a Styrofoam to-go container, was some of the best pad Thai I had purely based on flavor and texture, but the experience of watching your food prepared in front of you and then eating it with a friend on a nearby park bench gave me a new perspective. Pad Thai is Thailand’s national dish because it’s accessible to all the people. While New York Thai restaurants are usually not known for being expensive, there is a sense of accessibility that is only felt through low cost means like a food cart or an outdoor vendor. This London-based pad Thai vendor also showed me that after the sauce has been made, the combination of ingredients really is simple:

  1. Heat a wok on high heat and cook your protein.
  2. Once the protein is mostly cooked, add noodles (after softening them in cold water)
  3. Thrown in some sauce (about 3 tablespoons per serving, or to taste)
  4. Stir-fry for about a 45 – 60 seconds and then throw in your vegetables.
  5. Add a lightly beaten egg to the side of the noodles and wait until it cooks about halfway.
  6. Mix it all together.
  7. Serve with a slice of lime, peanuts, and pounded chili flakes (all to taste).

I want to emphasize that simple to execute does not mean easy to perfect. There are nuances in the technique that you only pick up when watching someone make your food and practicing relentlessly. I tried to focus on these details as I decided to shift this dish from sentimental, to truly a part of my identity. I always wanted to learn how to make pad Thai, and I appreciate that our class emphasized the importance of becoming personally acquainted with the process of making the food that means so much to us.

Rohm Thai’s chicken pad Thai, NYC
Source: Instagram, @common.bites

Shopping in a Thai grocery store was an interesting and rewarding experience. The shopkeepers were very nice and helped me find everything that I needed, although this was after aimlessly wandering around the store for twenty minutes. This wandering showed me briefly how similar my personal tastes line up with Southeast Asian food. Goya sazon was sitting right next to seasoning salt with a label written in what I could only guess to be Thai. Cafe Bustelo was sitting next to Indonesian coffee. Friends from the Philippines always mentioned that they love Latino products and that they seem to show up in their cupboards back home. After processing this small connection, I rushed back home to begin my pad Thai experiments. The first four or five attempts at following a recipe did not work out as well as I hoped, but it helped me get familiar with my kitchen, how to handle the ingredients, and how to judge the timing of adding each ingredient by the sound the pan. My biggest challenge was the sauce, and after some very disappointing attempts to recreate my favorite sauces, I decided to put my faith on two of the leading pad Thai sauce manufacturers, Thai Kitchen and Maesri[14],[15]. The former is based in California and the latter in Thailand, and while there could probably be debates about which is better, I opted for combining the two sauces. Thai Kitchen had a great balance of spices, but Maesri had a sweetness that I thought paired well with Thai Kitchen’s rich savory flavor. I also forgot to buy chili flakes, so I grabbed my go-to hot sauce, Cholula, and I honestly thought that it improved my pad Thai recipe by a lot. The authenticity of the dish might be put into question, but I think that this addition was a way for me to introduce some of my own culture into a dish that I didn’t have a cultural connection with, but I loved nonetheless.

My time studying at New York University gave me plenty of opportunities to sample the restaurants in lower Manhattan and I found my favorite pad Thai in Rohm Thai, right around the Flatiron District and the site of my first pad Thai. It is very, very likely that I am exhibiting a huge bias since I spent a great deal of time here with people that I love and those loving memories impact my perception of the food. But, I have also spent a great amount of effort looking to dethrone Rohm by actively looking for better noodles (Hell’s Kitchen has some mighty contenders). When I bring someone to my favorite Thai restaurant, I am sharing something that is special to me, and expressing my love of friendship. I imagine that when Thai still enjoy these noodles from their local vendor decade after decade, they might be expressing unspoken feelings of loyalty and love of country. I mentioned earlier that pad Thai is a personal symbol of love and a reminder of home, and after the experience of learning how to make it, pad Thai has also become a symbol of self-care. I’m very thankful for the space Global Noodles has provided me to grow because now I feel pretty confident in my ability to carry my own piece of home and love, in the form of a recipe, wherever I may go.

 

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[1] Julia F. Morton, Fruits of warm climates (1987), 115–121.

[2] Pailin’s Kitchen, ”Pad Thai (Full) – Hot Thai Kitchen ผัดไทย,” https://youtu.be/efedTXK6LD8

[3] Deena Prichep, “Fish Sauce: An Ancient Roman Condiment Rises Again,” http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2013/10/26/240237774/fish-sauce-an-ancient-roman-condiment-rises-again

[4] Julia F. Morton, Fruits of warm climates (1987), 168–172.

[5] Jan Timbrook, “The Natural History of Chile Peppers,” https://www.sbnature.org/crc/332.html

[6] “Melissa Blevins, “Where did peanuts come from?” http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/10/peanuts-come/

[7] Roberto A. Ferdman, “The strange and potentially stolen origins of pad Thai,” http://qz.com/198860/the-strange-and-potentially-stolen-origins-of-pad-Thai/

[8] Feedipedia, “http://www.feedipedia.org/node/235”

[9] David Farley, “The quest for the perfect pad Thai,”

http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20150415-the-quest-for-the-perfect-pad-Thai

[10] Alexandra Greeley, “Finding Pad Thai,” http://www.gastronomica.org/finding-pad-Thai/

[11] Penny Van Esterik, Materializing Thailand (New York: Berg, 2000), 102.

[12] Tim Cheung, “Your pick: World’s 50 best foods,” September 2011, http://travel.cnn.com/explorations/eat/readers-choice-worlds-50-most-delicious-foods-012321/

[13] BuzzFeedVideo, “Pad Thai Taste Test Tour With A Thai Chef,” https://youtu.be/oOehNolp_1U

[14] Thai Kitchen, “About Us,” http://www.Thaikitchen.com/About-Us

[15] Maesri, “Company History,” http://www.maesribrand.com/company.html