Pad Thai: history, ingredients and insider tips

The dynamic combination of sweet, sour, bitter and richness has made pad Thai one of the most recognisable Thai dishes.

We caught up with Soul Food Mahanakorn creator Jarrett Wrisley to talk history, ingredients and the best pad Thai in Bangkok.

What is the history of the famous pad Thai? Where did it originate?

Pad Thai is a relatively new dish and is the result of a nationalization strategy by a Fascist military government. In the 1930s there was a campaign in Thailand to create unity, essentially to take a fractious country of Lao, Malay and Tai and make them all “Thai.” Part of this movement involved translating this idea of unity into national dishes, and pad Thai was a product of this. Ironically, noodles are not Thai at all, but are in fact Chinese. Therefore, pad Thai is actually a masqueraded Chinese dish with a few Southeast Asian ingredients thrown in for good measure.

 Pad Thai has so many different components, can you give us a quick run through?

Pad Thai isn’t a difficult dish to make, but it is very time-consuming. First, you need to make the sauce by reducing tamarind and fish sauce. Then, you must prepare the mise en place: noodles, pickled radish, bean sprouts, roasted or fried peanuts, pressed tofu, dried prawns and beaten eggs. Once this is set, you simply need to toss it all in a wok over a very high heat to assemble.

Any personal pad Thai preferences, hints or tips?

The best pad Thai is not too sweet. Create sourness and bitterness with a little raw banana flower, some smoke from the wok, a squeeze of lime, some dried wok-roasted chilli and a hint of tamarind. That works for me.

So, taking all of this into consideration, why do you think pad Thai has become one of the most recognized dishes in Thai cuisine?

Pad Thai is a dish that translates very well abroad. It has characteristic Thai flavours of both sweet and sour, yet the bitterness and spiciness are generally up to the diner through additions of herbs or dried chilli. It’s therefore very diverse, plus convenience is key: in Thailand, the dish is mainly served on the streets and made very quickly in a wok to take away.  

And finally, any insights on the best pad Thai in Bangkok?

Aside from Soul Food? I would stick to the street vendors. Many years ago David Thompson, the Australian chef, restaurateur and writer, took me to his favourite vendor in Dusit, in the old part of Bangkok. That spot was really delicious.

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