A Nearly Century Old Dish: pad Thai

Thai restaurants across the US and UK highlight pad Thai as a staple on their menus. Marked by its sweet, savory, and sour flavours, it is the country’s trademark dish! At least, that’s what the name would suggest. Diving deeper into its history reveals a surprising origin, muddying the water between authentic v. western variations of the dish.

An authentic recipe for pad Thai is as clear as tamarind paste, which online recipes claim to be an irreplaceable ingredient for a genuine experience of the dish. Online cooking resources are quick to point out that there are “westernized” versions of pad Thai, then there’s “true” pad Thai. These recipes emphasize the replacement of inauthentic ingredients and imply that they are inferior, or even ignorant, inclusions to the dish. These recipes make sure to state the importance of using tamarind rather than ketchup, mung bean sprouts, and a variety of street food techniques to recreate the traditional egg frying flare seen in the streets of Bangkok.

Pad Thai was introduced in the 1930-40’s, during a time of economic hardship and severe rice shortages. While primarily a Thai-centric nationalization effort, as a way to modernize the country, prime minister Plaek Phibunsongkhram adopted some ideas from Western and other foreign-influences. Taking its origins from Chinese noodle dishes, few of the recipe’s original ingredients are even native to Thailand. During this time, the Thai government not only introduced the recipe but heavily promoted street vendors to sell it to the public. They even provided vendors with free carts, fully equipped to produce the new resource-efficient and protein-rich dish, which came to be known as kway teow pad Thai, or “Thai-style stir-fried noodles”. This etymology implies a prior origin, as it would be uncommon to name a dish in this manner- for example “American-style Apple Pie” would suggest that this is an American interpretation of a previous country’s apple pie.

Pad Thai was introduced as an effort to build a strong national identity while also solving widespread hunger issues throughout the country. When you think of Japan, you think of ramen; with China, Lo mein- and now pad Thai for Thailand.

During an interview with several Thai food and culture experts, the South China Morning Post reports that unlike other menu dishes, pad Thai is often written in English rather than Thai script in order to attract tourists. Along with the “‘sour, sweet, salty – that makes it appealing to so many palates'” it is a “‘very easy dish for a foreigner to order.'” This is not a dish that developed naturally from a local palate. These flavours have widespread appeal, which explains its success across the world.

There is no “authentic” way to make pad Thai; there are no irreplaceable ingredients, only ones that are more or less common in certain regions of the world. As the South China Morning Post details in their interview, “‘no chef in Thailand follows the formula when making pad Thai'”, the recipe changes based on “‘how the chef is feeling that day'”. When making pad Thai, forget the preserved salted radish or Chinese mustard stems. Replace dried shrimp with oyster sauce, and garlic chives with scallions. Use ketchup, pineapple, or extra cabbage, because this dish is about experimentation.

References

Baker, Chris. “Thailand Escaped Colonialism, But Still Adapted Western Ideas – WSJ.” WSJ, The Wall Street Journal, 26 June 1997, https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB86728174163740500.

Chan, Bernice. “Who Invented Pad Thai? | South China Morning Post.” South China Morning Post, South China Morning Post, 28 Apr. 2019, https://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/food-drink/article/3007657/history-pad-thai-how-stir-fried-noodle-dish-was-invented-thai.

Ferdman, Roberto A. “The Non-Thai Origins of Pad Thai – The Atlantic.” The Atlantic, https://www.facebook.com/TheAtlantic/, 17 Apr. 2014, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/04/non-thai-origins-of-pad-thai/360751/.

Miyashiro, Lauren. “Easy Pad Thai Recipe – How to Make Best Pad Thai.” Delish, Delish, 22 June 2017, https://www.delish.com/cooking/recipe-ideas/recipes/a53823/easy-pad-thai-recipe/.

Moskin, Julia. “Shrimp Pad Thai Recipe – NYT Cooking.” NYT Cooking, NYT Cooking, https://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1023042-shrimp-pad-thai. Accessed 10 June 2022.

“Pad Thai: Authentic Thai Recipe! – The Woks of Life.” The Woks of Life, 28 Sept. 2020, https://thewoksoflife.com/pad-thai/.

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