Thai Foods Ep.7


Authentic Pad Thai

by Thomas M. Tillman
Pad thai is easy to make, but it isn't quick if you make everything from scratch. So to prep it for a weeknight meal, check out my post on How to Make Authentic Pad Thai in 5 Minutes!

What does REAL traditional pad thai look like?

You've probably had pad thai in your local restaurant, but what you had may not be anything like the authentic version. First, it should not have ketchup or any tomato product in it. Second, it should not be syrupy sweet. And finally, it shouldn't be just a heavy, soggy clump of noodles with bits of green onions. Real pad thai should be:
  • Stir-fried in a hot wok, so the noodles come out dry with a little smokiness, not wet.
  • A good balance of sweet, salty and sour, not leading with any one flavour.
  • LOADED with beansprouts which lightens the noodles and add freshness.
  • Have lots of "bits" in it which gives complexity: shallots, garlic, tofu, dried shrimp, etc.
  • All in all it should be a well-balanced dish that leaves you satisfied, and not heavy.

Why is it so hard to find good pad thai in restaurants?

Cooking pad thai is actually quite easy; after all it's a stir-fry! But the fully-loaded, traditional version has a lot of ingredients, not all of which are easy to find. For many restaurants some ingredients may not be available, the many prep may be too complex for their simple operation, or they need to keep the cost of such a staple item low. So things get left out and substituted. But each ingredient in pad thai contributes a flavour. Nothing in there is added just for "fluff" - so the more you take away, the less complex the flavour becomes. Sure, you can omit or substitute a few things without much harm, but past a certain point, the flavour suffers significantly. (Of course we can't always get all the ingredients we need; hence my pad thai substitutions guide below.)

Ingredients

The hardest part of pad thai is in prepping all the ingredients. Here's everything you'll need; with more details on a few, plus the substitutions guide.

Ingredients for Pad Thai Sauce:

Pad thai sauce is deceptively simple: there are only 3 ingredients. This means you should try to use the best quality of ingredients you possibly can. You can make the sauce fresh as I showed in the video tutorial, or make it in bulk in advance and keep it in the fridge for months! Check out this large-batch recipe for pad thai sauce.

Ingredients for Pad Thai:

  • Shallots
  • Garlic
  • Dried shrimp
  • Pressed tofu
  • Sweet preserved radish
  • Chili flakes (optional, not pictured)
  • Eggs
  • Roasted peanuts
  • Rice noodles
  • Bean sprouts
  • Garlic chives
  • Lime wedge for serving (not pictured)

Choosing the right noodles

The noodles you want are dry rice noodles, size medium. This is the size used traditionally in Thailand. A lot of people mistakenly choose the large size, and though it won't really harm the dish, it's not quite the real deal. I use Erawan Brand rice noodles which I find to be the best one with the right chewiness. Some brands, such as Thai Kitchen, make thinner noodles that are not as chewy. If using thinner noodles, you will not need to soak them as long, and you may need a little less water in the sauce.
Erawan Brand, Size M is my preferred choice for pad thai.

EMERGENCY NOODLE SOAKING:

Medium size dry rice noodles take about 1 hour to soak in room temperature water. Brands that are thinner will take less time and vice versa. If you're short on time, you can use warm water and it'll take less time. Keep an eye on them and remove them once they become opaque white and completely pliable (don't resist your bending at all.) Don't over-soak. If you're about to cook and forgot to soak them, don't panic! They can be soaked in 3 minutes in hot off-the-boil water, but it's a bit risky so I try to avoid it. Too long in hot water and they will become too soft, so you MUST time it and place them in cold water immediately after.

What is Sweet Preserved Radish: Chai Po Waan ไชโป๊

Chai po is Thai preserved daikon radish, and it comes in 2 varieties: sweet (chai po waan) and salty (chai po kem). You want the sweet one for this - however it is not critical that you have it, so don't sweat it if you can't find it. You'll likely need to go to a specifically Thai grocery store to find these. Sometimes they come whole, and sometimes pre-chopped. I usually get the pre-chopped one if I can find it to make life easier. Japanese sweet preserved daikon, takuan, makes for a decent substitute.
Left: Thai sweet preserved daikon radish. Right: Japanese sweet preserved daikon radish, a good substitute.

What is Pressed Tofu? เต้าหู้แข็ง

Pressed tofu is exactly what it sounds like...tofu that has been pressed to drive off most of the water, leaving only the firm bean curd behind. It is the firmest of all the tofus you can buy—firmer than extra firm! Sometimes this is labeled "bean curd," which I think might be slightly different because in my experience it tends to be slightly firmer, but it tastes about the same and can also be used in pad thai. Pressed tofu and bean curds are great for stir fries because they do not fall apart. Extra firm tofu can be used instead, but if you're concerned about them breaking you might want to pan-fry them first until golden to firm up the exterior.
Pressed tofu is very firm and is great for stir fries. Marinated versions are also available and can be use if you prefer it.

Ingredient Substitutions Guide

There is a substitute for just about everything, but please remember that the more you alter it, the less it tastes authentic. If I didn't include an ingredient below, it means there is no good substitute.
  • Palm sugar - Substitute equal weight of light brown sugar.
  • Fish sauce - You can probably find fish sauce, but if you are vegetarian, use an equal amount of soy sauce or try my Vegan Pad Thai recipe.*It's important to use good quality fish sauce for this as it is the main seasoning. For how to choose the best fish sauce, watch my video on The Ultimate Guide to Fish Sauce.
  • Tamarind paste - Please don't substitute this. It's so important, and there isn't really a good substitute. You can buy it pre-made, which is sometimes labeled "tamarind concentrate". But the best flavour will come from one you make from tamarind pulp. It's easy to make, and you can make it in bulk; here's my video tutorial on how to make tamarind paste from pulp.Don't know what tamarind is? Here's a video to answer all your questions.
  • Sweet preserved daikon radish (chai po waan) - This is one you can omit without much harm to the dish. Some Thai people don't even add it, so you can feel good about this one. But if available, you can use the same amount of Japanese yellow sweet daikon radish pickle (called "takuan").There also exists the SALTY version of Thai preserved radish (chai po kem), this is not the right one and it would make your pad thai too salty.
  • Dried shrimp - Dried shrimp adds a nice umami and you'll never find pad thai in thailand without them, but if you're allergic to shrimp, you can omit them and the dish will still be delicious.Any Asian grocery store should have dried shrimp in the refrigerated section. You can also try dried scallops if you can have them; these are quite expensive but you don't need a lot. Watch my dim sum turnip cake video to see how to work with dried scallops.
  • Garlic chives - Most people will add green onions or scallions instead, which is fine, but garlic chives is actually quite mild as it is more of a vegetable than an herb. So if you are using green onions, do not add the same amount or it will be overpowering.Also, don't cut green onions into 2-inch pieces as with garlic chives; thinly slice them. Green onions are much chewier in big pieces, with a much stronger taste. You will only need 1-2 green onions for this recipe.
  • Peanuts - If you are allergic, try cashews, pumpkin seeds or sunflower seeds. You just wanna add a bit of nuttiness and crunch.
  • Pressed tofu - Use extra firm tofu and pan fry them until golden to firm up the exterior to prevent them from crumbling.

Step-By-Step: How to make pad thai

I highly recommend watching the full video tutorial to ensure success, but here's a bird's eye view of what you need to do:
To make the pad thai sauce:
  1. Melt and caramelize the palm sugar.
  2. Add water to stop the caramelization.
  3. Add fish sauce and tamarind and bring to a simmer.
  4. Off heat and let it sit until the sugar is completely dissolved.
Process shots for making pad thai, steps 5-8
  1. Cook off the shrimp (or any other protein you're using). Remove from pan.
  2. Saute shallots, garlic, tofu, dried shrimp, preserved radish, and chili flakes.
  3. Add the soaked noodles.
  4. Add the sauce.
Process shots for making pad thai, steps 9-12
  1. Toss until the noodles have absorbed all the sauce.
  2. Push the noodles to one side and add the eggs to the space you've made and break the yolks.
  3. Put the noodles on top of the eggs and let it cook for 15-30 seconds.
  4. Flip and toss to mix.
Process shots for making pad thai, steps 13-16
  1. Add the peanuts, bean sprouts and garlic chives.
  2. Turn off the heat and toss until the beansprouts are incorporated and slightly wilted.
  3. Plate and top with more peanuts and shrimp.
  4. Don't forget to add fresh lime before eating!

How to Make Pad Thai in 5 Minutes

Pad thai made from scratch isn't exactly weeknight-friendly because there's so much prep to do. But good news: the prep can be done days in advance so you can have pad thai on a Tuesday night in minutes, just like at a restaurant! There are "4 levels of preparedness" when it comes to pad thai prep, but even doing level 1 will save you lots of time. If you've got all 4 levels done, you can cook pad thai in 5 minutes - watch me do it in real time in this video!

Level 1: Pre-Make the Sauce

Having pad thai sauce done is the most time-saving, especially because you can make it in bulk, and then it will last indefinitely in the fridge. Check out the recipe for the large-batch pad thai sauce here. If you only have the sauce done, you will have pad thai on the table in 30 minutes (with the emergency noodle-soaking trick below.)
Pre-made pad thai sauce is better than any store-bought version you can buy, and it lasts a long time in the fridge!

Level 2: Pre-Soak the Noodles

This is arguably as important as the sauce, because it takes a while. Dry noodles will take about 1 hour to soak in room temp water before they're ready to be cooked, so it is best to do this ahead of time. Drain them well and store in a well-sealed container for up to 3 days. *This timing is for medium size Erawan Brand dry rice noodles; if you're using a different size or brand, you may need to adjust.
Soak rice noodles in advance and keep in the fridge to have them ready for the next few days.

Level 3: Pre-Cook the Protein

This is an incredibly useful tip not only for pad thai but for all sorts of dishes, especially stir-fries. Whether you're using seafood, meat, or tofu, you can cook them all in advance! Once in the fridge, they should last you the whole week.
Having pre-cooked protein in the fridge makes any stir-fries a breeze. You can also add them to salads or noodle soups!
If using seafood, there is no need to season them. But for chicken, pork or beef, it is a good idea to marinate or season them with fish sauce or soy sauce since they will not get a chance to absorb much flavour from the dish.

My super tasty, all-purpose meat marinade for stir fries: For 8 oz (225 g) of thinly sliced pork, chicken or beef, add 2 tsp (10 ml) soy sauce, ¼ tsp (1.25 ml) sugar and 1 Tbsp (15 ml) water. Mix well and let it sit for at least 15 minutes.

Level 4: Pre-Cut Veggies

You better believe restaurant chefs are not cutting your vegetables to order. They may not have een cut them today ... or yesterday. Washed and cut veggies will last in the fridge for several days, depending on how sturdy the veggies are. In pad thai, you can pre-chop the garlic chives, pressed tofu, and peanuts. If using the preserved radish (and they're not the pre-chopped kind), you can chop them too.
Cutting veggies doesn't take that long, but if you have them ready to go, your pad thai can be ready in 5 minutes!

Tofu storage tip: If cutting tofu in advance and not using the next day, I recommend keeping them submerged in water to extend their shelf life. Change this water out every few days.

FAQ's & Common Issues When Making Pad Thai

Why is my pad thai so dark and so sour?!

You used the wrong tamarind. You probably used "tamarind concentrate" from India, which is entirely different from the one we use in Thailand and is much more concentrated. It can be used but you'll have to dilute it. Unfortunately I've not personally used it so I don't know for sure how much water to add, but I would start with using just 1 Tbsp of the concentrate mix with 3 Tbsp water. See this video for everything you need to know about tamarind, and this video on how to make tamarind paste at home.

Why are my pad thai noodles clumpy and soggy?

A few potential issues: Do not boil the noodles before using. Noodles only need to be soaked for 1 hour in ROOM TEMP water. They can be soaked in advance, but be sure to drain them well after 1 hour. Pre-soaked noodles can keep in the fridge for a few days.

Also, do not crowd the pan, especially if you have a weak stove. If you crowd the pan you'll trap too much steam, which causes the noodles to boil rather than fry.
Why is my pad thai so bland?

Make sure you measure the ingredients correctly. This is not the recipe to "eyeball". The sauce amount is designed to be perfect for the amount of noodles, so if you eyeball the noodles and use too much, it will be too diluted.

Why is my pad thai not orange like ones in restaurants?

Rest assured, you pad thai is NOT supposed to be orange! Many restaurants will add ketchup and paprika to boost the colour in order to make it look more appealing, but this is not traditional.

However, we DO make a type of pad thai that is orange, and that colour comes from prepared shrimp tomalley (also known as shrimp paste in oil). Check out my recipe for Pad Thai Mun Goong here!
I need to make this for a party, what should I do?

Pad thai is not a dish I recommend making for a party. It's hard to make a large amount of pad thai using a home stove—you will need to make multiple batches.

Also, the noodles don't sit well and they are best when eaten fresh off the wok. If they sit for too long the noodles will start to clump up together. It IS possible to do it for a not-too-big party, but I would cook multiple small batches, and plan it so that people will eat them shortly after they're done.
I have leftover pad thai, what's the best way to keep and reheat it?

Pad thai, and rice noodles in general, do not keep well. One day in the fridge isn't too bad; it can be microwaved or re-fried in a pan with a splash of water. But after multiple days in the fridge, the noodles will harden and can't really be brought back to life. So it's best to not make too much.

How can I make pad thai vegan/vegetarian?

Don't modify this recipe! Use my awesome vegan pad thai recipe here instead!

Can I use chicken instead of shrimp?

Sure. I'd marinate the chicken with some fish sauce or soy sauce though so it has some flavour first. Sear it off the same way I do the shrimp, remove from pan, and toss it back in towards the end with the beansprouts.

Ingredients

PAD THAI SAUCE

PAD THAI

  • 4oz (115g) dry rice noodles, medium size, soak in room temp water for 1 hour (see note 2)
  • 2 Tbsp dried shrimp, medium size, roughly chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • ¼ cup roughly chopped shallots
  • 3 oz (85 g) pressed tofu, cut into small pieces
  • 3 Tbsp finely chopped SWEET preserved daikon radish (see note 3)
  • Dried chili flakes, to taste (optional)
  • 3 Tbsp (45 ml) vegetable oil
  • 10 medium sized shrimp, or as many as you like (to sub other protein, see note 4)
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 ½ cups (120 g)bean sprouts, loosely packed
  • 10 stalks garlic chives, cut into 2” pieces
  • ¼ cup roasted peanuts, roughly chopped
  • 1 lime
  • Garnishes and condiments for serving: chili flakes, roasted peanuts, bean sprouts and garlic chives.
(In Thailand, fresh banana blossom is sometimes served on the side of pad thai. I don't love them personally, but if you do and can find them, go for it!)

Instructions

TO MAKE PAD THAI SAUCE (SEE NOTE 5)

  1. Add palm sugar to a small pot and melt over medium heat. Once the sugar is melting, keep stirring until it darkens in colour (see video for colour). Immediately add water, fish sauce, and tamarind paste. The sugar will harden immediately and this is okay.
  2. Bring sauce to a simmer, then turn off heat. The hardened sugar will not have dissolved at this point, but let it sit while you prep other ingredients and it should be dissolved by the time you need it. Check that it is dissolved before you start cooking!

TO MAKE PAD THAI (SEE NOTE 6): 

  1. Cut drained noodles once with scissors so they are half as long. This makes them easier to toss and separate in the wok.
  2. In a bowl, combine tofu, garlic, shallots, preserved radish, dried shrimp, and chili flakes.
  3. Heat a wok or a large nonstick skillet over high heat and add just enough oil to coat the bottom. Sear shrimp, or whatever protein you're using, until done and remove them from pan.
  4. In the same wok over medium heat, add a little more oil if needed, then add everything in the tofu bowl and sauté for a few minutes until garlic starts to turn golden and shallots are wilted. If the wok looks dry, add a little more oil. (Don't skimp on oil otherwise the noodles will clump up together.)
  5. Turn heat up to high then add noodles and sauce. Keep tossing until all the sauce is absorbed.
  6. Once sauce is absorbed, you can turn off the heat and taste the noodles for doneness. If they're still undercooked, add a little more water and continue cooking, being careful not to add too much water!
  7. Once noodles are done, push them to one side of the pan. Add add little extra oil to the empty space and add eggs. Break the yolks, then put noodles on top of eggs and cook for about 30 seconds. Flip and toss to mix eggs into noodles.
  8. Toss the cooked protein back in, plus any collected juices. Then add bean sprouts, garlic chives and half of the peanuts. Turn off the heat and toss until well mixed.
  9. Serve immediately with a lime wedge and extra peanuts on top. For a classic presentation you can add a little extra side of bean sprouts and some garlic chives garnish.
  10. Be sure to squeeze a bit of lime on top before eating!

Notes

  1. Do not use the black, sticky "tamarind concentrate" from India as it is much more concentrated and cannot be used in the same way in this recipe. Either make it from pulp or buy the brown paste that is from Thailand or Vietnam.
  2. You can soak noodles in advance, drain, and keep them well sealed in the fridge for a few days. I use Erawan brand noodles. Some brands, such as Thai Kitchen, have thinner noodles and take less time. Keep an eye on them and drain once the noodles are completely pliable (no resistance when bending). No time to soak? See emergency noodle-soaking in the blog post.
  3. Thai sweet preserved radish is hard to find, but you can omit or use the Japanese version instead which is called “takuan” and is bright yellow. See blog post for more info.
  4. If using chicken, pork or beef, slice into bite-sized pieces and marinate them with just a bit of fish sauce or soy sauce so the meat isn't bland.
  5. You can make a big batch of sauce in advance and store indefinitely in the fridge. See this recipe for large-batch pad thai sauce.
  6. I recommend cooking no more than 2-3 servings at a time to avoid crowding the pan and making the noodles soggy.