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Pad Thai: The Ultimate Street Food

Updated on March 29, 2012
Pad Thai on a plate
Pad Thai on a plate | Source

A Dish With History

For many people, the signature dish of Thai cuisine, the dish most often ordered at any Thai restaurant in any state, is pad Thai. No doubt, the delectable stir-fry noodle dish has many merits, one of them being that it is completely and utterly addictive. While you may be familiar with the dish, the truth is that kway teow pad Thai (the full, accurate name) is not native to Thailand. Kway teow in Chinese refers to rice noodles, and it is thought that an earlier version of the dish was brought to Thailand by Chinese settlers coming from southern China. Also, the cooking style of stir-frying is distinctively Chinese. Origins and cooking style aside, the flavors and textures of what we have come to know and love about pad Thai are deliciously, mouth-wateringly Thai.

How Did Pad Thai Become So Popular?

Ever wonder why the sudden explosion of pad Thai fever? I certainly did, and with the help of an article by Alexandra Greeley in the winter 2009 issue of GASTRONOMICA, I retraced the steps of the emergence and rise of such an iconoclastic recipe. As it turns out, one very important person is credited with popularizing what we know as pad Thai today: Prime Minister Pibulsonggram. An influential leader, in 1939 he officially changed the name of the country from Siam to Thailand, which means “Land of the Free.”

He wanted, among other things, to improve the Thai economy and the national diet. One way to do that was to endorse a noodle dish that was nutritious, affordable to make and supportive of Thai farmers and their crops. Adding bean sprouts, peanuts, onions, eggs and meat to the noodles made the dish protein rich and a source for national pride. In the 1940s, a time of many floods and fear of diseases, pad Thai was also seen as a very sanitary dish—the noodles were served piping hot and cooked in clean pans.

In order to further encourage people to jump on the pad Thai bandwagon, Pibulsonggram and his government widely distributed the recipe and urged vendors to use their noodle carts (think mini food trucks) to sell the dish to customers on the busy streets of Bangkok. From this, the popularity of pad Thai as a convenient, cheap and healthy meal exploded, especially for the lunchtime crowds. From the heart of a bustling city pad Thai spread to rural areas all over the country, eventually making its way to the Western world.

Alternative to a wok
Alternative to a wok | Source
Palm sugar
Palm sugar | Source
Thin rice stick noodles
Thin rice stick noodles | Source

Elements of Pad Thai

Another explanation as to why pad Thai is so coveted and sought after by casual diners and foodies alike is the balance of flavors and textures. In a successful recipe, you will find a perfect equilibrium between salty, sour and sweet; depending on where you are in Thailand (and on your personal heat tolerance) chilies are added to taste, ranging from barely noticeable to scorching hot. In terms of texture, you get both a soft, chewy mouth feel (noodles, shrimp, tofu) and a delicate crunch (bean sprouts, peanuts). In Thailand, local ingredients such as raw mango, star fruit or banana blossoms are used as a garnish for even more crunch and sour taste.

And while it is said that the best pad Thai is found on hidden streets, side alleys, and tucked away corners in Bangkok, for those of us who can’t get there, there is still hope to have an amazing version filled with exceptional ingredients and flavor. Just be wary of those chefs who do not pay attention to balance, who break all of the rules, or who ignore crucial Thai ingredients altogether.

The following is a recipe given to me by a friend from the south of Thailand, Jam.

Pad Thai Recipe

Serves 2


Soak rice noodles in cold water for an hour. Make Pad Thai sauce (see below)

2 Tbsp. vegetable oil

4 oz. dried, thin rice stick noodles (pre-soak in cold water for an hour)

2 small bunches Chinese chives, green onions or scallions (use the last 2 inches closest to the root, which has more flavor)

1 shallot, minced

2 eggs, fresh

2 oz. extra firm tofu, cut into small cubes and deep fried or pan seared (double amount if not using shrimp)

6 shrimp (about ½ cup whole shrimp, cleaned and shelled)

2 oz. pork or chicken

2 tsp. salted radish (sold in Asian markets)

1 pinch Thai chili flakes (can be bought, or to make your own simply buy dry Thai chilies and dry roast them in a pan for 10 minutes, stirring constantly, then pulse in a food processor until they become flakes)

2 handfuls bean sprouts

2 Tbsp. crushed roasted peanuts

1 lime, quartered


2 Tbsp. palm sugar (sold at Asian markets)

1 Tbsp. white sugar

2 Tbsp. tamarind water (you can buy this pre-made or make it yourself: see my hub on green papaya salad for the recipe)

2 Tbsp. fish sauce

To make sauce: Mix palm sugar, white sugar, tamarind water and fish sauce and let ingredients simmer in a saucepan until dissolved and clear

Fried egg and pork
Fried egg and pork | Source
Rice stick noodles, uncooked
Rice stick noodles, uncooked | Source
Noodles turning brown
Noodles turning brown | Source

Cooking Directions

It’s best to use a wok, but if you don’t have one, a large pan will suffice

1. Heat wok on medium-low

2. Once wok is heated (about 1 minute), add oil

3. Add shallots, fry until fragrant and golden brown

4. Crack in eggs; let them FRY for about 1 minute

(do NOT scramble)

5. Stir in eggs and mix with shallots

6. Add tofu, shrimp, chili flakes and radish

7. Stir fry until tofu is thoroughly heated and light brown in color

8. Add noodles

(A good trick for cooking the noodles is to spread them out along the bottom of the wok and then flip them with a spatula)

9. If using shrimp, take them out to avoid overcooking and reserve for later

10. Turn up heat to medium and stir-fry until noodles are tender and translucent and brown in color

11. Add prepared sauce

12. Stir everything together for 1-2 minutes

13. Return shrimp to the wok

14. Add bean sprouts and Chinese chives; cook for another 30 seconds

15. Taste noodles; they should be sweet, sour and salty

(add more sauce if needed, or water if too strong in flavor)

16. Mix well; spoon portions into separate bowls

17. Garnish according to taste; see below

Pad Thai mixed and ready to serve!
Pad Thai mixed and ready to serve! | Source

Thailand's Most Recognizable Dish

When serving, top the pad Thai with crushed peanuts, fresh chines chives, bean sprouts, and a wedge or two of limes. You can also add chili powder if you want your pad Thai a little hotter! Also, be sure to have all of the ingredients within reach as you have to work fast with this dish. The good thing is you will have a homemade, premier noodle dish with a fresh and rounded flavor. And who knows; after just a few bites of this pad Thai, you may just have visions of Bangkok...

Would You Make This Pad Thai Recipe At Home?

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    • Danareva profile image

      Dana De Greff 5 years ago from Miami

      Saday-thanks for reading and I hope your pad Thai is savory and delicious!

    • Danareva profile image

      Dana De Greff 5 years ago from Miami

      Cyndi10- thanks so much for reading and sharing! I was fascinated myself by the history, and how important not only flavors but also textures are to Thai cuisine. No wonder pad Thai is such a hit!

    • saday profile image

      saday 5 years ago from India

      Looking very Delicious. I will this by today. Voted up

    • Cyndi10 profile image

      Cynthia B Turner 5 years ago from Georgia

      What a very distinctive history for such a great dish. I love pad Thai. Thanks for the recipe. I'll enjoy making and eating this one. Voted up and sharing.

    • Danareva profile image

      Dana De Greff 5 years ago from Miami

      Wayseeker- thanks for reading! I also get so much more out of eating if I know some sort of history, where or how it is made and with what level of passion. In a way it's like writing- nothing worse than a flat, stale meal, right? Please explore these recipes- you wont be disappointed! And Thanks for your great comments!

    • wayseeker profile image

      wayseeker 5 years ago from Colorado


      I've only recently moved into a more serious approach to Asian foods, and this looks like a wonderful one to try. I may not have time till a bit later (need to get the school year closed out) but I smell a summer project here.

      I also love the background presented at the beginning. Food means much more than simply a full stomach, and I love when I can enjoy the history and depth of a meal along with its rich flavors and fragrances.

      Voted up, useful, and marked for future use!


    • Danareva profile image

      Dana De Greff 5 years ago from Miami

      Mamita- well, if you can't/won't make it at hone,at least now you know how to tell a quality pad thai dish from a poor imitation! And knowing the history is part of the fun=) thanks for reading and commenting

    • profile image

      mamita 5 years ago

      you can come to my house and make this for me anytime!!kidding.....I love thai food but I'm too lazy to do this when there are so many good thai restaurants around. The history behind this dish is fascinating, I'm really enjoying learning historical facts about food as a result of your informative hub pages.Thanks!

    • Danareva profile image

      Dana De Greff 5 years ago from Miami

      Tia-thanks! If only all world leaders pushed good ideas... It is very do-able and very yummy. Let me know how it turns out!!

    • profile image

      tia 5 years ago

      Never would have guessed that pad thai came about as a result of a Prime Minister's idea. That was one smart man! Very educational hub, recipe sounds do-able, we will give it a try. I wouldn't have guessed the eggs were fried, always assumed scrambled. Great hub!

    • vespawoolf profile image

      vespawoolf 5 years ago from Peru, South America

      I know, I'm ashamed about the jarred sauce. I look forward to trying your recipe!

    • Danareva profile image

      Dana De Greff 5 years ago from Miami

      Vespawoolf-jarred sauce, oh no! =) at least you don't use peanut butter! I hope you try the dish and you can buy premaid tamarind and fish sauce to make it even easier! Thanks for reading!

    • vespawoolf profile image

      vespawoolf 5 years ago from Peru, South America

      I happen to love pad thai and your recipe sounds delish! I often make it, but I'm embarrassed to say that I use a jarred sauce. Yours sounds simple enough, so I plan to give it a try. Thank you!

    • Danareva profile image

      Dana De Greff 5 years ago from Miami

      J- i also had no idea! I love knowing the history of a dish, as it adds another level of enjoyment and appreciation. Enjoy your pad thai and let whoever you share it with in on the fascinating history!

    • profile image

      5 years ago

      Great description of pad thai. Had no idea of the history if pad thai, that it was a chinese dish and marked such a big role in the culture of thailand in recent times. You were able to capture the essence of this plate, and actually make me hungry... Looking forward to making this recipe. 

    • Danareva profile image

      Dana De Greff 5 years ago from Miami

      Thanks rjsadowski! If you have not had pad thai, go out TODAY and eat some. Be wary of any wacky substitutions like peanut butter.... Enjoy!

    • Danareva profile image

      Dana De Greff 5 years ago from Miami

      Jenubouka-it is literally the BEST pad thai I have ever made/had the pleasure of eating. All the flavors, perfect mouthfeel and a lot of heart make an amazing dish. Thanks for reading and so glad to inspire!

    • profile image

      jenubouka 5 years ago

      I can't begin to express how much I love, love Pad Thai! I will scour the ends of the earth or my neck of the woods to fine real authentic pad thai! Then ask for 10 out 5 stars for very spicy, the look on the restaurant owners face is priceless. This recipe will be tried, oh yes, for it looks awesome!

    • rjsadowski profile image

      rjsadowski 5 years ago

      Excellent article and recipe. I enjoy learning about the history of a food that I am not familiar with.

    • Danareva profile image

      Dana De Greff 5 years ago from Miami

      Janis--You are so welcome! Now you have the recipe, so I hope you make it at home! Thanks for reading!

    • profile image

      janis shenkman 5 years ago

      This looks so yummy.I love thai food.Before I retired I often went to a thai place for lunch and really miss it.Thanks for the yummy recipe. janis

    • Danareva profile image

      Dana De Greff 5 years ago from Miami

      Same here!thanks for reading, jojokaya!

    • jojokaya profile image

      jojokaya 5 years ago from USA

      delicious..., one of my favorite

    • Danareva profile image

      Dana De Greff 5 years ago from Miami

      Pad thai just seems to taste better when you eat it with those you love...thanks for reading, anna!

    • profile image

      Anna 5 years ago

      YUMMY! I remember our kway teow pad Thai and spring roll night...memories :)