Pad Thai is a perfect food, whether you’re eating it out of a takeout box on your couch or diving into a plate of it on the streets of Bangkok. Chewy noodles, crunchy bean sprouts, umami-y fish sauce: It’s sweet, salty, tangy, and yes, it’s worth your time to learn how to cook, even if it seems outside your chicken-and-rice comfort zone.
“Cooking Thai is only mysterious because you’ve never done it before, but once you get your feet wet, you’ll find that it’s very approachable,” says Kris Yenbamroong of Los Angeles’ Night + Market. “So treat it like you would any other food. Treat the ingredients with care and don’t afraid to be bold with your seasoning.” We asked Yenbamroong and other Thai food experts to demystify Pad Thai for beginners.
Follow the rules
When you’re first embarking on the road to Pad Thai, resist the urge to cut corners. “People tend to use shortcuts and compromise the necessary steps to make it fast and easy, such as substituting chili paste with chili powder,” says Yanavit Theerasomboonkun, Chef de Cuisine at Shangri-La Hotel, Bangkok. “By doing so, you lose the authenticity of the recipe and your Pad Thai is no longer original. First, you have to have a good recipe. Then, strictly follow the recipe step by step, without skipping anything.”
That doesn’t mean you can’t put more personality into the dish down the line. “Part of me feels that everyone should cook Pad Thai however their heart desires,” says Yenbamroong. “At the same time, when I see people make a couple of the same rudimentary ‘mistakes’ over and over, it hurts a little. Not because it’s offensive in any way, but because when you do Pad Thai right, it’s one of the best things you can eat.”
Get the right noodles
You’re making a noodle dish, so make the effort to buy the proper noodles for the job. “Pad Thai is all about the noodle, so you have to have the right one,” says Yenbamroong. “In this case, we’re looking for ‘rice stick’, which is a dried rice noodle. You rehydrate it (an hour or two in room temp water). It is the easiest noodle to work with and will give you the most consistent results. Try to find one that’s imported from Thailand and look for a width around a half centimeter.” Theerasomboonkun looks to the south of Thailand for his noodle needs, and so can you. “Normally, we use fresh narrow rice noodles from Chanthaburi Province, but if you live overseas, you still can find dried Chanthaburi noodles at Asian supermarkets,” he says.
When it comes time to cook said noodles, think al dente, or as Yenbamroong says, cooked through but still a bit chewy. “Don’t overcook the noodles—some people boil them before throwing them in the wok,” he warns. “They get mushy and sometimes break up into little shards. Pad Thai noodles should have chew.”
Have good fish sauce on hand
Fish sauce is a staple of Thai cooking. There’s a lot of it out there, and every chef has his or her go-to. “3 Crabs and Squid are my favorite brands,” says Yenbamroong. At nahm restaurant in the COMO Metropolitan Bangkok, chef Jan Suraja Ruangnukulkit goes for the Megachef band. “Brown label Megachef is the fish sauce that has full taste, not only salty but also great scent,” says Ruangnukulkit. “It will [be] more aromatic when you cook with high heat and will make your dish get the fish sauce fragrance clearly.”
Invest in a wok
To properly cook Pad Thai, you need a wok. “We write about the importance of owning a wok in our cookbook,” says Yenbamroong. “It can be any type of wok, doesn’t matter. But the round shape of the pan is crucial to the way you work ingredients around.” Ruangnukulkit recommends an uncoated carbon steel wok that’s not too thin. “This material heats quickly, transfers the heat well, and will get more ‘wok hei’ from the wok,” she says. “A carbon steel wok will form its own nonstick coating after you seasoning a wok. But make sure to keep the wok clean and season with a little oil after use.”
Don’t overdo any of it
Pad Thai is a bold dish that can be destroyed by going overboard on any particular element, like the protein. “The protein should be treated as a seasoning,” says Yenbamroong. “I feel that a real ‘American’ take on Pad Thai is to load it up with protein. It shouldn’t be one part chicken breast to one part noodle; that’s too much. For me, a good Pad Thai uses the protein—whether it’s chicken, tofu, prawns—as a nice accent. If you were making pasta carbonara, you wouldn’t throw in as much guanciale as you would spaghetti.” Same goes for the sauce. “Don’t over-sauce,” says Yenbamroong. “Pad Thai is not a soup noodle, so keep it just wet enough where the sauce helps cook the noodle and just barely coats it but not so saucy that the noodles trip when you fork them up from the plate.”
Kris Yenbamroong’s Pad Thai
4 ounces dried rice stick noodles
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup bean sprouts
¼ pound brined chicken thighs, or extra-firm tofu, or large peeled shrimp
2 green onions, cut on an angle into 2-inch slices
2 tablespoons roasted peanuts
1 teaspoon roasted chili powder (see below), or to taste Lime wedges
For the chili powder:
2 cups dried Thai bird’s eye, pulla, or árbol chiles, stemmed
In a dry wok, roast the chiles over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until they turn a deep, dark crimson (almost brown) and give off a sweet and earthy smell (not burnt). The process shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes, but it pays to be vigilant in making sure the chiles toast evenly and slowly.
Remove the chiles from the heat and let them rest until cool enough to handle. Transfer to a food processor, blender, or spice grinder and grind until the mixture is slightly finer than the crushed red pepper you’d find at a pizza shop. Be careful not to breathe in any chile dust when you remove the lid. Store in a sealed container in a cool, dry place for up to 3 months.
To make the Pad Thai:
Soak the noodles in warm water for 30 minutes, until pliable enough to bend around a finger. (If you’re not using them immediately, you can drain the noodles and keep them in the fridge until ready to use.)
In a small bowl, stir together the sugar, fish sauce, and vinegar to make a sauce.
Heat an empty wok over high heat until it begins to smoke, then swirl in the oil. Once the oil is shimmering, add the chicken or tofu and stir-fry until the meat turns opaque but isn’t fully cooked, which should take about a minute (less time for shrimp; they will cook a little more quickly). Add the noodles and sauce, then continue to stir-fry, constantly stirring until the noodles absorb the sauce, about another minute.
Use your spatula to push aside the noodles and leave them there, making an empty space in the center of the wok. Crack the egg into the empty space and let it cook until the edges start to set, 15-20 seconds. Use the edge of your spatula to break up and rough scramble the egg, then toss it back in with the noodles while the egg is still soft. Once the egg looks mostly cooked, remove from the heat and throw in the bean sprouts and green onions, tossing thoroughly to combine. Transfer to a plate and garnish with the peanuts, chili powder, and a lime wedge.
source: gq.com BY NATALIE B. COMPTON