The History and Recipe for Thailand’s National Street Dish, Pad Thai | AMA Travel

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.

We show you how to make this dish that, despite its manufactured origins, has stood the test of time for nearly 100 years and helped bring a country together.

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.”

The efficacy of some of Phibun’s mandates can be disputed, but we know two facts: Thailand is the only South Asian country to never be occupied by a European power, and pad Thai remains the country’s national dish, celebrated by street vendors, restaurants, and in homes across the country to this day.

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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.

So just like the ingredients, it’s the combination that makes the dish truly special.

Pad Thai Recipe

This recipe was adapted from “The World of Street Food” by Troth Wells, with slight modifications.

Ingredients

225 g of dried, flat rice noodles (vermicelli noodles can be used as a substitute)
1 cup of pressed tofu, diced
1 cup of cooked prawns
2 serrano chilis, chopped and with seeds removed
2 scallions, diced
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons of tamarind paste
5-6 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 cup of bean sprouts
2 limes
½ cup of peanuts
2 tablespoons of cilantro, chopped

Directions

  1. Start to soak the noodles in lukewarm water: long enough that they are flexible, but not mushy.
  2. Coat the bottom of a wok, or frying pan, in cooking oil and bring it to high heat (peanut oil works best, both for flavour, and because peanut oil can stand higher heats without smoking).
  3. Drop the tofu in the pan and cook until golden. Afterwards, drop in the shrimp and cook for only a few more minutes.
  4. Drop in the onions, fish sauce, garlic, tamarind paste, and chilis.Stir around so the flavours can combine, but only for 1-2 minutes.
  5. Drop in the noodles and stir long enough so they can absorb the flavours of all the other ingredients. Squeeze the juice of the limes over the dish.
  6. Toss in the bean sprouts and cook for only a minute. Remove from the heat, and dress the dish in crushed peanuts and chopped cilantro. Enjoy!

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If you want to taste traditional pad Thai in all its forms, whether it’s in a restaurant or from a street vendor, then enter AMA Travel’s 7 Islands Travel Contest!

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About the Author
Caleb Caswell
Caleb Caswell is the digital copywriter for AMA Travel. When travelling, he enjoys not making plans and expanding his wardrobe. His top travel recommendation is trying Japan’s raw-chicken tataki. C’mon, live a little.