Anybody who loves Thai food has a special fondness for pad Thai, the most popular dish in the Thai repertoire. When prepared properly, this rice noodle concoction delectably balances salty, sour, and sweet flavors. Restaurants usually do a good job with it. But making pad Thai at home can be tricky.
For one thing, recipes vary wildly. Some people swear that ketchup is the key ingredient (indeed, some of the best restaurant versions have a distinctly ketchup-y hue), while others completely scorn it, preferring the tang of tamarind. Some use hefty portions of sugar; others leave it out. Some use lemon juice; others prefer lime.
But the trickiest part of making pad Thai at home is getting your sauce right without making your noodles mushy. Many recipes tell you to add the cooked noodles before you add the sauce ingredients, meaning that as you fiddle around with jars and bottles, trying to get the taste right, your noodles turn to mush.
For years we struggled with this dilemma, until we found a blog post that neatly solved the saucing problem. Pim at Chez Pim (who grew up in Bangkok and considers ketchup "an abomination") points out that if you make your sauce ahead of time, you don't have to worry about getting it right at the last minute, as your noodles fall apart in the wok.
In this excellent how-to for Pad Thai, Pim suggests heating a half-cup of tamarind pulp, a half-cup of fish sauce, and a half-cup of palm sugar (or a third of a cup of brown sugar) until the sugar is melted, then adding chili powder to taste. (You can find tamarind concentrate at Asian markets on online. Most supermarkets now carry fish sauce in their Asian sections; if you've never used it before, bear in mind that a little bit of this salty ingredient goes a long way, so use a light hand until you know how much you like.) Once you have this sauce prepared, it's easy to add it to your pad Thai.
We've had good luck with this recipe:
8 oz. rice sticks
1/2 pound shrimp or tofu
2 t. cornstarch
2 T. sherry or rice wine
About 4 T. peanut oil
2 eggs, lightly scrambled
2 big cloves garlic, chopped
3 fat scallions: chop whites, cut greens into 1-inch lengths
1/2 cup pad Thai sauce
4 cups bean sprouts, divided
1/2 juicy lime, plus quarters for garnish
3 T. ground roasted peanuts
1. Soak the rice sticks in boiling water until al dente—about five minutes, depending on their thickness and freshness—then run cold water over them and set aside.
2. Mix cornstarch and sherry or rice wine, add to shrimp or tofu, and set aside for a minute or two.
3. Heat two tablespoons of oil in wok and add marinated shrimp or tofu. Stir constantly for a minute or two until the protein is cooked, then remove from wok and set aside.
4. Add a few teaspoons of oil to hot work, then add eggs. When they are lightly cooked, remove them and set them aside.
5. Add a few teaspoons more oil to the hot wok, add the garlic and scallions, and quickly fry.
6. Add the soaked and drained rice noodles, followed by the pad Thai sauce. Stir quickly to mix in the sauce, then add two cups of bean sprouts, the eggs, and the protein. Stir and taste—you may want to add a bit more sauce—but move quickly so your noodles don't get mushy!
7. Turn the pad Thai onto a platter, squeeze the half-lime over it, and sprinkle with ground peanuts. Serve with quartered limes and two cups of raw bean sprouts.
Serves two very hungry people.