‘ Pad Thai ' actually means pad , or phad or phat (‘stir-fried'), and Thai or tai (‘freedom'). The word Thai means ‘freedom', but when the name of this famous noodle dish is written in Thai script, the Thai in pad Thai is not the same spelling as the word for ‘freedom', instead, it means ‘Thai-style'. So the term refers to Thai-style stir-fried noodles.
Pad Thai has been called ‘The National Dish of Thailand', although that seems to be mostly because it is the Thai dish most known by Westerners and one that they know to not be spicy; and incidentally, one of the most-ordered dishes at Madam Mam's. If you asked any Thai on the street in-country what their national dish was, I doubt “…pad thai…” would be the answer that you received. It is, after all, a Vietnamese dish which uses Chinese ingredients. It is rare that a Thai would ever cook this dish at home these days, choosing instead to purchase it from their favorite street vendors and restaurants that specialize in the dish. It is popular as lunch, dinner, or as a late night dining option after a night of partying.
Pad Thai is a stir-fried noodle dish with a flavor combination of sweet (white sugar, palm sugar, or in the States as a cheap and easy shortcut, ketchup), sour (vinegar, lime, and/or tamarind), and salty (fish sauce or sea salt), and a textural contrast between soft noodles, pickled vegetable, crunchy bean sprouts, peanuts, fried tofu, dried shrimps, and any meat or seafood used by the cook, if any. It is cooked on a flat-surfaced pan, and not cooked in a wok. Popular choices for additional ingredients include chicken, pork, shrimp, or tofu, but beef, squid, or cuttlefish can be used as well. Depending on the regional style, cooks might add chile powder ( phrik pon ) or mild paprika for color. If ordered from a street vendor, the customer will indicate which of the added ingredients they prefer. The customer will then use any of the noodle condiments to adjust the final taste to their individual preference: roasted ground chile, sliced chile in vinegar, fish sauce, fresh chile sauce, minced peanuts, or sugar.
Originally the dish was prepared for take-away dining by street vendors by placing a sheet of newspaper down, lining it with banana leaves, placing the order of noodles on top of the banana leaves, and then wrapping the package up securely before securing it with twine made from banana stalks; a method much more romantic than today's styrofoam. However, this dish is best when eaten as soon as possible after it is removed from the stove.
The History of Pad Thai:
Some culinary historians attribute pad Thai to Vietnamese origins, probably based on Banh Pho Xao Sate or a derivative, a dish of stir-fried rice stick noodles with sate (garlic, peanuts, and chiles), mung bean sprouts, meat of some sort, scallions, and fish sauce, often served with pickled vegetables. The dish was said to be imported to the ancient Thai capital city of Ayuthaya by Viet traders, and was then altered to reflect the Thai flavor profile and assigned a name reflecting its newly acquired Thainess.
Although variations of the dish existed hundreds of years before, pad Thai was formally promoted as a culinary entity and made popular by Prime Minister Luang Pibulsonggram (also spelled Phibunsongkhram) during WW II. He wanted to reduce rice consumption during the war (the Thai economy was based largely on rice exports), and there were serious budget constraints at the time. He launched a massive campaign to teach the poor how to manufacture rice noodles, and how to open noodle establishments (shophouse cafes and hawker carts), while using the dish as a tie-in to his campaign for quasi-fascist ultra-nationalism. Phibunsongkhram was the leader of the military revolt which toppled the absolute monarchy in 1932, launched a campaign to introduce western attire, and consolidated the language to promote the Central Thai style and exclude regional dialects. He danced a pragmatic line between appearing to aid the Japanese while maintaining some semblance of Thai independence. After watching Japan destructively blitzkrieg their way across Malaysia , he declared Thailand an ally of Japan . He was forced to resign by the nationalists after Japan 's defeat, but carried out a coup a few years later to regain control, this time under a façade of democracy. After a relatively lengthy and rocky reign, he was forced into exile in Japan after a coup in 1957. Pad Thai lived on.
Companion Dishes: although many pad Thai vendors concentrate solely on making this single dish, a large number of pad Thai vendors will also offer companion dishes, since they are mostly made from the same ingredients: Khanom phak gad ( white radish [daikon] cakes tossed with chile flakes, bean sprouts, and Chinese leeks with a light soy-based sauce) and Hoi tod (a thin mussel omelet with bean sprouts, served with chile sauce) .
We should warn the reader against restaurants or vendors who cook huge batches of pad Thai and hold them to be dispensed when ordered. The informed diner should deal only with a cook who prepares a single serving of pad Thai , cooked-to-order, which is how Madam Mam's cooks the dish…one order at a time. A cook who specializes in pad Thai will often use a measured amount of a pre-combined ‘mother' sauce rather than add each seasoning ingredient sequentially in a step-by-step process. This is done to speed up the cooking time and produce the dish quickly and with efficiency, and also guarantee consistency from plate-to-plate. Thai bottlers sell commercial versions of this pre-mixed sauce for cooks who want to make pad Thai at home and don't have the training to do so.
Regional Styles of Pad Thai:
Pad Thai Ayuthaya:
The accepted style of Ayuthaya uses a relatively sweet mother sauce made from palm sugar, white sugar, tamarind juice, sea salt, and fish sauce. The components of the dish are: wide rice noodles, mother sauce, crispy garlic, salted and preserved Tien jing cabbage, tiny dried shrimp, Chinese leeks, roasted and ground peanuts, and roasted chile powder. If egg is desired, the dish is pushed to one side of the pan, an egg is added and scrambled, and then combined with the mixture. Since the sauce is so sweet, this version relies on balance of taste by using sour fruits as part of the garnish: slivered starfruit, banana blossom julienne, peanuts, pennywort leaves, Chinese leeks, and chile powder.
Pad Mii Korat: This is a spicy version of pad Thai from Korat, also known as Nakhon Ratchasima, ‘The Gateway to Issan'. It uses shredded cabbage or pak boong (water spinach), chiles, fish sauce, vinegar, sweet dark soy, tamarind, sugar, pickled garlic, pickled ginger, scrambled egg, and round egg noodles called sen mii , garnished with cucumber slices and cilantro leaves. It is usually eaten at lunch, often accompanied by som tam (spicy green papaya salad).
Pad Mii Krathok (from the Chokchai region):
A specialty version from west of Korat, using minced garlic, minced onions, minced chilles, minced peanut, coarsely-chopped pork, sugar, fish sauce, and raw fresh noodles, garnished with chives and mung bean sprouts.
Pad Thai Krung Thep : Bangkok-Style Pad Thai:
This Central-style version uses garlic, Chantaboon sen lek rice noodles, rice vinegar, fish sauce, diced fried tofu, tiny dried shrimp, salted and preserved Tien jing cabbage, roasted and ground peanuts, roasted chile powder, sugar, mung bean sprouts, Chinese leeks or chives, scrambled egg. Garnishes include: mung bean sprouts, Chinese leeks, banana blossom julienne, and lime wedges. Housewives in the countryside say the name, Pad Thai Krung Thep, with disgust and consider it overly elaborate and think of it as rich people showing off. They don't realize how competitive the pad thai street vendor scene in Bangkok really is, and how demanding the vendor's customers can be.
Woon Sen Pad Thai: This is an alternate style which became popular in Bangkok in the early 1990's, using thin, translucent woon sen noodles made from mung bean starch. This version uses thick tamarind juice in place of vinegar, combined with the standard ingredients. It is a bit spicier, using dried and roasted, ground phrik kii nuu chile powder both as an ingredient and as one of the garnishes.
Pad Thai mangsawirat: A vegetarian version of the classic Bangkok style, using tofu and beans (black eyed peas, mung beans, soy beans, green beans, long beans, etc.) or other vegetables while omitting the dried shrimp and egg, as well as any added meats or seafood.
Pad Mii Rayong/Chanthaburi: This version is the basis for the pad Thai cooked at Madam Mam's. Originally it is made with crab: claw and lump crab meat in the expensive version, hacked-apart crab in-the-shell for the home-style version. The sauce is sweeter than the Central styles, using shallot, palm sugar, tamarind, vinegar, fish sauce, and scrambled egg. It uses a red chile powder made from the milder long, red Thai chiles which are de-deeded, dried, and ground; it adds chile flavor fruitiness without the piquant heat.
At Thai restaurants in the States pad Thai is generally cooked with added meat or seafood, changing what is normally an inexpensive vendor dish into a full-blown entrée; this is seldom seen in Thailand , except in middle to upper class restaurants. Ketchup and vinegar are used much more widely here than is tamarind, and except for rare occasions, the dish is cooked only in restaurants; street vendor versions only appear at special occasions in the States, such as temple fairs or food fairs.
With any of these versions Chinese leeks are preferred, but can be substituted with chives or scallions. Salted and preserved Tien jing cabbage can be substituted with preserved turnip (the sweeter version of the pickled vegetable is preferred over the saltier version).