By Veronica Inveen
May 8, 2020
The world may be looking to sourdough starters and houseplants for comfort these days, but we have a cure-all that requires far less responsibility: a heaping plate of pad Thai. These stir-fried noodles are the perfect balance of salty, spicy, sour and sweet (read: very tasty) and surprisingly easy to ace at home. When done right, the dish can transport you to straight to the streets of Bangkok. And couldn’t we all do with fulfilling some travel fantasies?
The fact that pad Thai can dependably be found in Thai restaurants around the world is no accident: 80 years ago the dish was imposed upon the Thai population as a cornerstone ingredient of a nationalistic agenda by then-prime minister Plaek Phibunsongkhram. He was looking for a way to unite the ethnically diverse population through culture and establish a national identity. He was wise to see the solution in an irresistible plate of noodles.
Phibunsongkhram issued 12 cultural mandates from 1939 to 1942, including changing the country’s name from Siam to Thailand, commissioning music for a new national anthem, and the creation of a national dish: pad Thai.
It was said to have been one of the prime minister’s favorite dishes made by his housekeeper. It was also a way to promote noodles, which require about half as much grain as a bowl full of rice, during a rice shortage after the second world war. Unfortunately for our purposes, there’s no part of the story in which the nation survived on the dish during a pandemic, but Phibunsongkhram did distribute the recipe along with food carts throughout the country to encourage people to make and eat the dish as much as possible.
Today, we think Phibunsongkhram would be pretty chuffed with himself: pad Thai is undeniably the dish that most foreigners associate closest with Thailand. It might even be consumed more outside the country than in.
Just ask super-chef Thitid “Ton” Tassanakajohn. He’s best known for his fine diner Le Du, where he uses French techniques with Thai flavors for a delicious multi-course meal that is refined yet inventive. Despite (or, perhaps, because of) the unorthodox style of his Michelin-starred restaurant, chef Ton has become an unofficial ambassador for Thai food—in addition to Le Du, which was No.8 on Asia’s 50 Best list this year, he owns two home-style Thai restaurants in Taiwan and Bangkok, is a judge on Top Chef Thailand and, pre-coronavirus, was frequently found jetting around the world for pop-ups and collaborations.
“People, especially Thais and chefs, always have an opinion on pad Thai. But I will say that one thing is for sure: it’s by far one of Thailand’s most iconic dishes,” Ton says. That’s one reason why earlier this year he and his brother, Chaisiri “Tam” Tassanakajohn, opened Mayrai, a pad Thai restaurant slash natural wine bar in Bangkok’s historic Old Town, within sight of Wat Po and around the corner from the Grand Palace. It makes sense they’d put a temple to one of the country’s biggest stars near other such revered locations.
“I’ve seen so many places—even in Thailand—making pad Thai wrong. So, I took it as my duty to make sure it’s being made authentically, and deliciously, of course,” he says.
They’ve nailed the dish—and the selection of tasty skin-contact wines—OG-style, using homemade pad Thai sauce, pickled radishes, plenty of fish sauce, and no chicken. Despite popular belief, chicken, pork and beef were never a part of pad Thai’s narrative… though, we won’t knock Mayrai’s more innovative versions, which add pretty slices of wagyu or savory, fatty pork jowl.
Ton teaches us how to make Pad Thai Mayrai, the shop’s signature noodle, below. So, hold off on the take out and add another quarantine-learned-skill to your arsenal.
Pad Thai sauce
1 cup – Tamarind juice from paste (squeeze with warm water to release juice)
1 ½ cup – Real palm sugar
¾ cup – Good quality fish sauce
Pad Thai Mayrai
100 g – Vermicelli noodles
1 tbsp – Shallot
1 tbsp – Yellow tofu
1 tbsp – Pickled radish
2 leaves – Chinese chive
3 tbsp – Pad Thai sauce
1 tbsp – Shrimp oil (or, alternatively, use chili oil)
In a bowl, mix together ingredients for pad Thai sauce and set aside.
Place noodles in a large bowl and cover in hot water. Let the noodles soak for around 5–10 minutes or until tender. Drain and set aside.
In a wok stir fry shallot, tofu and pickled radish over medium-high heat. Add egg; stir until barely set, about 30 seconds. Turn up the heat and add noodles and pad Thai sauce. Stir-fry until sauce is absorbed by noodles and noodles are well coated. Stir in chopped garlic chives. Transfer to a serving plate.