This is the one noodle dish to master and to love, over all the others (including the best that Italy has to offer). It’s so addictive that it alone would keep Thai cuisine alive, were we ever to become too jaded for our own good and eschewed everything else.
Pad Thai is a splendid lesson in how the simple, and bland, rice stick (a.k.a. rice vermicelli) can evolve in the culinary hands of a tasteful culture. The result is so harmonious, so perfect in every way that it would be hard to imagine it without even one of its vast symphony of flavors and ingredients. Though daunting at first (so many ingredients), it is actually relatively easy to concoct. The only caveat is that one cannot stint on the oil content, although it appears excessive. Too little oil, the noodles will stick and you’ll have a mess in your wok. I’ve gotten away with 5 tbsp instead of the full 1/2 cup but I had to work awfully fast to avoid the sticking. This one is a treat; give it its full due and it’ll pay back in memorable pleasure.
Serves 4 as a noodle course or 2 as a main course
8 oz Thai rice noodles
1/4 cup tamarind paste
1/4 cup warm water
4 oz skinless, boneless chicken breast
4 oz fried tofu
6 tbsp roasted unsalted peanuts
3 tbsp fish sauce
2 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp lime juice
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 tsp chopped garlic
8 large shrimps, shelled and deveined (50 oz)
1 cup bean sprouts
2 stems green onion, cut into 1-inch pieces
1/2 tsp roasted chilies
Strips of red pepper
Fresh coriander leaves
Wedges of lime
1. Soak noodles in plenty of cold water for at least 1 hour.
2. Combine tamarind paste with a 1/4 cup warm water in a small bowl and let soak for at least 15 minutes.
3. Slice the chicken into 1/4-inch strips. If you find it difficult to cut thinly through fresh meat, leave it in the freezer for 15-20 minutes to harden slightly and then slice. Reserve.
4. Slice the fried tofu into 3/4-inch cubes. Reserve.
5. Blend or process peanuts into coarse meal. Reserve.
6. Return to your reserved tamarind paste in its water. Mash it and transfer the mud-like mixture to a strainer set into a bowl. Mash and push with a spoon, forcing liquid to strain into the bowl. Scrape off the juice that clings to the underside of the strainer. You will have about 5 tbsp of tamarind juice. Add to it the fish sauce, sugar and lime juice. Beat to thoroughly mix and reserve. Discard the solids left in the strainer.
7. Heat oil in a wok (or large frying pan) until it is just about to smoke. Add garlic and stir, letting it cook for about 30 seconds. Add chicken and stir-fry for 1 minute. Add tofu and shrimps and stir-fry for 1 more minute. Break eggs into wok and let them fry without breaking them up for 1-2 minutes.
8. While eggs cook, quickly drain the noodles and then add to wok, giving them a quick fold, stir-frying for 1 minute from the bottom up. Add reserved tamarind juice, etc. (from step #6) and continue stir-frying, mixing everything together for 1-2 minutes. Your noodles will have subsided to half their original volume and softened up to al dente.
9. Add about 2/3 of the reserved ground peanuts and stir. Add about 2/3 of the bean sprouts and all the green onion pieces. Stir-fry for 30 seconds and take off heat.
l0. Transfer noodles to a serving dish and sprinkle with roasted chilies. Top with the rest of the ground peanuts, the rest of the sprouts, some strips of red pepper and fresh coriander leaves. Stick a couple of lime wedges on the side and serve immediately.