Learn the Recipe for Pad Thai, a Dish Born from Government Propaganda
Walk down any main street in Bangkok, and you’ll eventually come upon an enchanting scent of fried shrimp and tamarind, noodles browning in a sizzling wok glazed with peanut oil. This is Thailand’s national street food, pad Thai, at its finest: simple, fast, and full of Thai identity – everything it was supposed to be when it was pushed by the government to unite Thai people in the 1930s.
Pad Thai’s Origins
Back in the 1920s, Thailand was a different country entirely. It wasn’t even known as Thailand, but Siam. It was a South Asian nation without any real nationhood: it was made up of numerous ethnic groups that didn’t affiliate with one another, was run by a monarchy, and in a time rife with European colonization, was at risk of falling under a foreign power at any moment.
Following a coup in 1932, military leader Plaek Phibunsongkhram (or “Phibun,” for short) would became Siam’s prime minister. Phibun knew his country was at risk, both internally and externally. He had two goals: to keep the many ethnic groups for warring, and to keep Europe or China from occupying the country.
He introduced many strategies to create solidarity across the nation: He encouraged his people to adhere to European dress codes and work schedules, changed the country’s name from Siam to Thailand, prioritized the purchase of Thai products over Chinese, and sought to improve the population’s hygiene and diet. A healthy nation was a strong nation – and if they could eat something that had a strong Thai identity, all the better.
Ironically, Phibun would go to great lengths to oust any Chinese that already lived in the country, but he was partial to their fried noodles – plus, they were easy to prepare and didn’t tax Thailand’s already limited stock of rice. Local chefs had already started playing around with fried noodles, and were adding their own local ingredients (tamarind, fish sauce, palm sugar and chilies, specifically). And so pad Thai was born! Phibun gave away free food carts to anyone who wanted to open a pad Thai street stand, until pad Thai became the Happy Meal of Thailand, and the government even went so far as to create the slogan “NOODLES ARE YOUR LUNCH.”
So is it Thai or Chinese?
The full name of pad Thai is kway teow phat Thai, which is Chinese for “fried noodles in a Thai style.” If that doesn’t help to clarify things (which it doesn’t), then the best way to put it is… it’s a bit of both.
Both noodles and stir-frying are Chinese inventions, and before the reformation of Siam into Thailand, there would have been numerous Chinese migrants introducing their culture into the country. However, the flavours of fish sauce, tamarind, and lime are distinctly Thai, and shrimp were typically used over other meats such as pork, as pork was considered a Chinese meat.
Pad Thai Recipe
This recipe was adapted from “The World of Street Food” by Troth Wells, with slight modifications.