Pad Thai Noodles: OK, Nabeel, This One's For You

A good friend, one of the guys whose example got me blogging, was back in Atlanta to visit last weekend. Since he is a frequent reader of my blog, and tries many of the recipes, I wanted to cook lunch for him and his friend Saturday. Thai rice noodles, kwei tiaow, in several different forms make a quick, lively and satisfying lunch -- as evidenced by the booming business done by the ubiquitous street vendors in Thai cities. With what I had on hand or could quickly buy I made Pad Thai noodles. (By the way, a different, and easier, Thai noodle dish is in my blog posting of 2/6/07.)

Kwei tiaow noodles, flat strips made from rice flour, are sold fresh in Thailand, and dried here -- and also fresh here if you are lucky, as we are in Atlanta. They are of southern Chinese ancestry, as are many urban Thai people including, no doubt, the earlier generations of sidewalk cooks. Noodle vendors with their portable, fiery single burner stoves and huge woks quickly whip up various concoctions fresh to order for the happy diner. Several of the well-known versions, like Kwei Tiaow Rad Nah and Kwei Tiaow Pad See Yu, are very Chinese, though with Thai touches. By contrast, Kwei Tiaow Pad Thai, literally rice noodles stir-fried in the Thai manner, while having similar origins, is much more Thai in its contents and flavoring systems, with that exuberant Thai clash of sweet-sour-garlic-hot pepper-fish sauce-cilantro, along with peanuts. It incorporates basically non-Chinese ingredients like palm sugar, tamarind or lime juice, and fish sauce. With the bits of meat (traditionally pork, but I generally use chicken), shrimp, tofu, and sometimes pickled vegetables, it seems amazingly complex. But in fact, with a little preparation it is not difficult to cook.

Several myths have crept in among Americans regarding Pad Thai. I've heard it described as Thailand's "national dish", which is quite erroneous. It is in fact a creation of the last 30 or 40 years. (My wife grew up in Bangkok and it was not part of her childhood.) Moreover, as great as it can be, it is street food. Classical Thai food is much more elegant. Pad Thai is often ordered in Thai-American restaurants as one of the dishes in a Thai dinner. In Thailand it is stand-alone snack or lunch food. With a few very special exceptions, noodle dishes are not part of the rice-based Thai dinner. Be that as it may, Pad Thai is still a delightful treat.

So back to Nabeel. I'm afraid I didn't do my best on his lunch. It was underseasoned to my taste, and left out the tofu and shrimp. I had not checked out the quantities and proportions I had previously recorded after much trial and error. But at least the flavors were fresh, and he and his friend enjoyed it. More to the point he tried to reproduce it today, boldly for six diners, and telephoned for a recipe. I gave him the general approach I use, and hope it turned out OK. But here for him and others who like Pad Thai is how I learned to make it. This is also how I have taught it in my Evening at Emory international cooking classes. It should "work" and reproduce a dish like you could enjoy in Thailand. I don't advise doing it for company the first time.

Pad Thai Noodles Tim

Serves 4 (maybe fewer, if they are male college students!)

1/2 pound (225 gm) dry flat rice noodles, 1/8 inch wide
2 eggs, beaten
12-16 fresh shrimp, peeled, deveined, tails intact
1/3 pound (150 gm) raw chicken or pork, thinly sliced
1/2 of a (1-pound) cake of tofu, firm style, in 1-inch cubes
3 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
3 scallions, including most of the green part, diagonally sliced 1/2 inch long
5 tablespoons peanuts (dry roasted), crushed or chopped slightly
2 cups fresh bean sprouts, rinsed
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro (coriander) leaves
4 tablespoons lime juice
4 tablespoons Asian fish sauce (available in Asian groceries)
4 tablespoons brown sugar (or palm sugar if available)
1/2 teaspoon ground or crushed dry red pepper or 1/4 teaspoon cayenne plus 1/4 teaspoon paprika
3-4 tablespoons vegetable oil (not olive oil)
1 red chili pepper, seeds removed and shredded
Lime wedges plus several sprigs of cilantro (coriander) leaves for garnish

Break the noodles into 4-inch lengths. Soak in warm water 20 minutes or more, until softened, and drain. Beat the eggs in a small bowl. Prepare the other ingredients from shrimp through cilantro leaves and set out in separate piles on a platter before cooking. Mix the lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, and crushed red pepper or cayenne plus paprika in a small bowl. Heat the oil in a wok or large frying pan and gently stir-fry the garlic until golden. Add the chicken or pork. Increase the heat and fry until the color is almost changed. Add the shrimp and continue to stir-fry just until the shrimp turn bright pink. Add the tofu. Stir and fry 15 seconds. Add lime juice-sugar mixture, stirring briefly to dissolve.

Add the drained noodles and stir through the mixture 20-30 seconds (the noodles should start to become tender). Push noodles to one side in the pan. Add a little oil to the emptied part of the pan, and pour in the beaten eggs. As they set, gently scramble them, keeping them separate from the noodles. Place most of the bean sprouts and scallions plus half the peanuts and chopped cilantro on the noodles. Stir these and the scrambled eggs throughout the noodles. Taste a noodle, and add fish sauce or salt if needed.

Serve immediately on a large plate or platter, sprinkling on the remaining bean sprouts, peanuts, scallions, chopped cilantro leaf, and red pepper. Garnish with lime wedges plus several sprigs of cilantro. Diners should squeeze a little lime or lemon juice on their noodles.