Pad Thai and my identity crisis
July 01, 2015
I play a little mental guessing game whenever I am introduced to people for the first time. It goes something like this:
“This is Nitsa, she’s from Thailand”.
I then have to guess whether their first sentence will include the words “Pad Thai”. It usually does. On very rare occasions, we might even be talking for a minute or so before those words enter into the conversation; I’m normally getting quite anxious by then. It’s difficult to focus on the conversation because I know you’re going to say it at some stage and now I’m waiting for it Come on, you’re going to tell me you love Pad Thai, just get it over with!
I suppose I should be pleased that the mention of my nationality should instantly spark a tribute to the national dish of Thailand. I mean, it has to be our national dish right? After all, if I type Pad Thai into Google I will get any number of websites telling me that it’s the Thai national dish. And let’s face it, it’s certainly a dish strongly associated with Thailand, it could hardly be anything else since it includes Thai in the title. That is actually a clue to its origins; Pad Thai was invented, created, stolen, whatever your view of history is, during the late 1930s to early 1940s, a time of intense nationalism in Thailand. An in-depth study of its origins is here, Finding Pad Thai.
I cannot help thinking that the national dish of the country should have more than just the word association with the country, much more. I think at the very least it should be a dish that is revered by a sizeable proportion of the population. A dish that you know you are never going to get properly cooked abroad and that you have to come home for. I’ve met English people in Thailand who go misty eyed at the prospect of Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. Americans who insist a decent hamburger is not to be had in Bangkok or indeed anywhere outside the US. I’m sure the same is true for many nationalities when it comes to their fondness for the national dish. Except, that is, if you happen to be Thai.
I have yet to meet a Thai that says to me something along the lines of “I can’t wait to get back to Thailand to eat Pad Thai”. As you might expect, whenever we Thai’s meet up, food will normally take up a large part of the conversation. Pad Thai won’t be mentioned. If you selected 10 Thai people and asked them to name their 10 favourite Thai dishes it wouldn’t surprise me if Pad Thai failed even to make the list. At best, it would be way down that list. Topping those lists would most likely be Tom Yum and Som tam. Those are Thai dishes. Pad Thai is a Chinese noodle dish. It’s street fast food in Thailand, an office worker might pop out for a quick Pad Thai at lunchtime in just the same way an office worker in the UK might pop out for a sandwich. That doesn’t elevate it to the status of a national dish surely.
Anyway the label has stuck. Whenever I am introduced to someone their mental filing cabinet is going to produce this combination:
Even if it were not a Chinese noodle dish, I think I would still find the association strange. Be honest, if you are English/American/Italian, you’re introduced to someone, and the first thing they say is to declare is how much they love roast beef/hamburger/pizza, you’re going to be thinking “Hmmm Ok....”
Another myth that the Internet seems to perpetuate is that you can judge a Thai restaurant by how good its Pad Thai is, something I come across repeatedly. I think the great Thai cookery writer Kasma Loha-unchit puts it best when she writes, “I always find it amusing when restaurant reviewers judge the quality of a Thai restaurant by the quality of its Pad Thai, as noodles can hardly take claim as lying at the heart of my country’s cuisine.” Makes even more sense when you consider that Thai restaurants generally make a point of ensuring that their Pad Thai is as bland and inoffensive as possible. They know it is the one dish that even non-Thai food lovers will often order.
I realise that this is turning into a bit of a rant against Pad Thai. That was not my intention when I started writing this and just to let you know how much of a hypocrite I am I cooked a quick Pad Thai for breakfast this morning! View the leftovers....
I would also be the first to say it’s not even “authentic” in that I have used chicken instead of shrimp. To me Pad Thai will always be a noodle dish with infinite variations. I certainly wouldn’t be so carefree in swapping ingredients when I’m cooking one of my curry pastes, wouldn’t dream of substituting Indian cardamom for Thai cardamom in my Massaman Curry Paste. Ginger instead of galangal in my Thai Green Curry Paste? Certainly not, I’ll leave that to the English and American food writers who seem to specialise in substituting ingredients in Thai dishes:-)
Back to the Pad Thai, it’s the time of year when I start to get emails asking me if I make Pad Thai paste and I notice people searching for it on the website. Well I don’t supply Pad Thai “paste” and I would certainly avoid anything that claims to be a Pad Thai paste. Simple fact is that the ingredients that make up the Pad Thai sauce are simply tamarind, palm sugar and fish sauce. You can buy these ingredients anywhere that you can buy the rest of the ingredients for the Pad Thai. Therefore, there is really no point in buying something that is going to have artificial flavours or emulsifiers and thickening agents added to it.
As for cooking Pad Thai, it’s a really simple dish and also really simple to make a complete mess of it! Whatever you do, do not try cooking this for guests until you have had at least one practice run through beforehand or you will regret it! As always the best guide to cooking Thai food is on the She Simmers website where Leela has an in-depth series for Pad Thai. And I do mean in-depth so be warned! A much shorter guide to cooking Pad Thai that references several distinguished Thai chefs is here.
I always find it strange that when the weather is at its hottest people look for the mildest Thai dish. Yet the natives in the hottest regions of the world eat the spiciest of foods precisely because they have a cooling effect. Southern Thai curry anyone?
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