If exotic ingredients have put you off trying Thai food, here is how you can recreate it – in the comfort of your own kitchen.
(This is part of a series where our current resident foodie, Somali Roy, will take readers through experimenting with various cuisines in their home kitchens).
“I’m calling from room 304”, I said, after much deliberation.
“Sawadee Ka (Hello)! What can I do for you, Madam?”, asked the same voice.
I could sense a smile. She knows.
I was trying to change my mind, just to show I could be unpredictable. “Is your kitchen still open? Can I order a (pause)..”, I flipped through the menu card like a maniac.
“The usual?”, suggested the voice gently, almost patronizing.
I flinched, muttered my consent and slumped on the bed.
Let me start by saying, I am Somali and I am an addict. It began when I ordered a humble dish of “Pad Thai” at my hotel room, in Bangkok, overlooking the Chao Phraya river, oblivious to the fact that this popular dish of Thailand is sold at every curb and sidewalk. I picked it simply because I was drawn to the description that said – rice noodles stir fried with eggs, prawns and tofu, garnished with bean sprouts, ground peanut and chilli flakes. How bad could it be?
It wasn’t. And I kept ordering it till the last meal on the last day of my trip. Pad Thai, as many Thai food lovers would agree, may look unassumingly ordinary, thus lowering your expectations in the first place. But then, when you put that first bite into your mouth – the softness of the noodles with a lightly fried shrimp against the crunch of peanuts, all bound together with the delicate sweetness of palm sugar that gently gives way to the tartness of tamarind and an occasional pungent whiff of fish sauce, finishing it abruptly with a kick of heat from the red pepper – you are swept off your feet and possibly end up ordering another plate, then another.
That was my fate; could be yours if it isn’t already.
To me, the beauty of this dish lies in its perfect balance of the four flavours – hot from red pepper, sweet from palm sugar, sour from tamarind, and salty from fish sauce/soy sauce. And if you can sense each of these distinctly and somehow etch them in your mind, at least till you can hustle back into your kitchen to replicate it, you have hope of creating something you can be proud of. This mantra is true for most of the Thai dishes that I have tried out in my kitchen, be it the fragrant Pineapple and shrimp fried rice, Tom Yum soup, Thai Red / Green curry or another personal favourite – Stir fried chicken with cashew nuts. As long as you let these four lighthouses guide your ship, you won’t be doomed.
…the beauty of this dish lies in its perfect balance of the four flavours – hot from red pepper, sweet from palm sugar, sour from tamarind, and salty from fish sauce/soy sauce.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But please don’t kill yourself if the first (or more) attempt despite following the recipe to the t, isn’t the pièce de résistance you had devoured earlier on. Not to worry. Attaining that perfect balance of flavours is not rocket science, but intuition that you develop with practice and an understanding of how each ingredient works. It took me a couple of attempts to create a Pad Thai recipe that I like and it’s worth the effort, simply because once you get the essence, you can apply it to other Thai recipes as well. My tip is to taste, taste and taste as often as you can while cooking this one to adjust the flavours.
And talking about ingredients, let me state that there are many pertaining to this dish or other Thai dishes. This may seem overwhelming at the outset but you’ll notice that most of them are either easily available in the market or are at home usually. The secret to cooking this or other Thai dishes is to prep ahead – the entire cutting, slicing, chopping, mixing – and arrange everything in the order they go into the cooking. Once this is done, you will be surprised at how astonishingly minimal the actual cooking time and how blatantly simple the process is.
While foraying into Thai cuisine, I remember how some of the ingredients like galangal, lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves, palm sugar and fish sauce intimidated me and kept me away. Not anymore. As a home cook, I am not an advocate of buying everything a recipe calls for, especially if it’s the only recipe I know that asks for it. The good news is, many of these are easily substitutable in making Pad Thai and the taste, if calibrated is nevertheless exceptional.
And that is why I can’t stop feeding my addiction.
Pad Thai Recipe
The traditional recipe calls for ingredients like tofu, palm sugar, peanut oil, dried shrimps, sweetened radish, bean sprouts that were not always available at places where I have lived. Therefore, I either substituted them or skipped them (though the recipe mentions all) in my version, and that hasn’t made a huge difference to the taste. However, I would stress on the garnishing – the lime, crushed peanuts and chilli flakes give an extra edge that you wouldn’t expect till you dig in!
Ingredients (serves 2)
150 gm thin rice noodles
1 tbsp fish sauce or soya sauce
2 tbsp tamarind juice or vinegar
1/2 tbsp palm sugar or brown sugar
4 tbsp peanut oil or vegetable oil or olive oil
250 gm fresh shrimp, shelled and de-veined
3/4 cup firm pressed tofu, cut into small cubes (can be substituted with diced chicken. I use none.)
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 shallots or a medium sized onion finely chopped
1/4 cup small dried shrimp (optional)
1/4 cup chopped sweetened salted radish (optional)
1 cup fresh bean sprouts (optional)
½ cup water or chicken stock
2 tbsp of crushed roasted peanuts
1 lime cut into small wedges
½ cup chopped spring onions
2-3 tsp dried red chilli flakes
Soak the rice noodles in lukewarm water for 40 minutes to one hour until the noodles are limp but firm to touch. Drain and set aside.
Prepare the sauce by mixing the fish sauce / soy sauce, tamarind juice / vinegar, palm sugar / brown sugar. Stir to melt the sugar. Add some chilli flakes to it. Taste and adjust flavours to the desired combination of salty, sour and sweet.
In a bowl, add a tsp of oil, a pinch of pepper and salt to the shrimp and keep it aside.
Heat the wok with 2 teaspoons of oil and quickly stir-fry the shrimp until they turn pink and then remove from the wok.
Add the remaining oil, saving a tsp to the hot wok. Add tofu (if using or diced chicken pieces), frying 1 to 2 minutes (bit more for chicken) until the pieces turn golden. Add the chopped garlic and stir-fry for few seconds. Then add the shallots and stir everything.
If you are using dried shrimp and sweetened salted radish, add it now.
Add the noodles and toss well with the ingredients in the wok. Stir-fry for 1 to 2 minutes till the noodles change texture and have softened.
Now push the mass to one side of the wok. Add a tsp of oil to the cleared area, crack the eggs onto it and scramble lightly. When the eggs set, cut into small chunks with the spatula and toss them in with the noodles.
Add the Pad Thai sauce. Stir well to evenly coat noodles. If the noodles still seem firm, sprinkle 1 to 2 tablespoons of water / chicken stock.
Return the shrimp to the wok. Add bean sprouts (if using) and chopped spring onions. Stir everything together.
Transfer to individual serving-size plates. Squeeze the lime over each portion. Garnish with crushed peanuts (ground in a mixer) and chilli flakes sprinkled on top.