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The first time I made Pad Thai, the stir-fried Thai street food that is on every Thai restaurant menu, was in Thailand at a cooking school I found on online during an extended trip to South East Asia. The school is nestled among rolling hills on the outskirts of Chiang Mai and the cooking classes are held outside under a corrugated overhang where gas stoves topped with black woks line up side by side waiting for novice chefs to learn how to make signature Thai dishes. I don’t recall there being any refrigerators at the school, but there was no need as all ingredients are brought in fresh from the market each day.
This is the first lesson in Thai cooking: always use fresh ingredients. The second is to respect flavor balance. Where there is sweet there is also salty, where there is spice there is also acidic tang. Pad Thai is a great blank canvas to play with flavor and doesn’t require a long list of ingredients to render it delicious. The base: rice noodles, a protein, peanuts, scrambled egg, bean sprouts – that’s it. The magic is in the sauce which is a combination of fish sauce, vinegar, sugar and tamarind paste. Since tamarind paste can be difficult to find you can use rice vinegar instead. If you can’t stomach fish sauce (but do try it, it is essential to Pad Thai’s signature flavor) use soy sauce. No wok? Any pan or skillet with high sides will do. The entire process from prep to cooking should take less than 30 minutes.
- 8 ounces flat rice noodles
- 3 tablespoons oil (use oil with a high smoke point)
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 8 ounces uncooked shrimp, chicken, or extra-firm tofu, cut into small pieces
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten
- 1 cup fresh bean sprouts
- 1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced
- 3 green onions, chopped
- 1/2 cup dry roasted peanuts
- 2 limes
- 1/2 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
For the Pad Thai sauce:
- 3 tablespoons fish sauce
- 1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
- 5 tablespoons light brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons rice vinegar, or tamarind paste
- 1 tablespoon Sriracha hot sauce, or more, to taste
- 2 tablespoons creamy peanut butter (Optional. This adds a nice creaminess, but not necessary.)
- Cook noodles according to package instructions, just until tender. Rinse under cold water.
- Make sauce by combining sauce ingredients in a bowl and mix throughly. Set aside.
- Heat 1½ tablespoons of oil in a large pan or wok over medium-high heat. Add the shrimp, chicken or tofu, garlic and bell pepper. The shrimp will cook quickly, about 1-2 minutes on each side, or until pink. If using chicken, cook until just cooked through, about 3-4 minutes, flipping only once.
- Push everything to the side of the pan. Add a little more oil and add the beaten eggs. Scramble the eggs, breaking the setting eggs into small pieces with a spatula or chopsticks as they cook.
- Add noodles, sauce, bean sprouts and peanuts to the pan (reserving some peanuts for topping at the end). Toss everything to combine.
- Garnish the top with green onions, extra peanuts, cilantro and lime wedges. Serve immediately.
- If you have leftovers you can store them in the fridge up to three days.