The Real Phad Thai
“You’ve never been to Thailand until you’ve tried the Phad Thai in Khaosarn Road”
That tagline is often heard uttered from the mouths of resident backpackers in this strip of guesthouses. For many tourists, one of the first stops they make when visiting Bangkok is Khaosarn Road. This famous road in the old town Pranakorn has over the years turned into a backpacker mecca, and with its growing popularity, many new “adaptations” have also been born in order to better cater to this growing community of westerners.
One of said adaptations is the famed Phad Thai. Literally translated as “Thai stir-fried”, it is probably the most noticeable and one of the most well known Thai dishes out there – and also one of the most misunderstood.
As a Thai-born growing up watching American TV on cable, I am often annoyed at how a dish of Phad Thai is portrayed. An order of Phad Thai would come in that white Chinese takeaway box and is often eaten with a pair of chopsticks. Here, we don’t use chopsticks for anything other than a bowl of noodles, or any other dishes of a Chinese descent. Thais use a fork and a spoon with Phad Thai, which is served on a plate and not in a bowl.
That familiar tagline from Khaosarn may be true, if you consider Khaosarn Phad Thai something of its own legacy. Just because you stir-fry some noodles with crushed peanuts doesn’t mean you’re making Phad Thai. Khaosarn Phad Thai is lacking a lot of traditional components. Vendors need to cut corners in order to whip up a plate of Phad Thai en masse, and of course they need to give it the taste that would please Western palates. And the result is this stir-fried rice noodles in soy sauce with a handful of bean sprouts, a dab of peanut bits and shreds of pre-cooked eggs. Sacrilegious!
I am here to speak out for my Phad Thai, one of my favorite Thai dishes of all time. Next time you’re in your neighborhood “authentic” Thai restaurant and ordering the dish, here are a few things to look out for.
The flavor: A dish of Phad Thai is cooked with tamarind paste, rather than soy sauce. So if your Phad Thai is lacking that sweet tangy taste, then it is missing one of the most important elements of a Phad Thai.
The noodles: Thanks to the whole “fusion” trend, many are now using different types of noodles in Phad Thai, even spaghetti. The original noodles however are the “chand” noodles, which are flat, chewy, light-brownish noodles as opposed to white brittle rice noodles.
The meat: Usually prawns or shrimps are added into the mix, but chicken is also common. Pork or beef, not so much.
The essentials: Besides the obvious raw bean sprouts and crushed peanuts, the noodles should also be cooked with Chinese chive leaves (flat, dark green), sweetened pickled radish (light brown cubes), small dried shrimps (red, salty), dried tofu instead of the white Jell-O like ones found in Japanese miso soups, and eggs that appear to have been cooked along with the noodles and not separately.
Those are just the basics. I am not saying this should be the rules to go by when ordering the dish. If you like what they’re offering, and it tastes good and is clean, by all means go for it. But there’s one rule I need everyone to abide by though; if you ever come to Thailand, please don’t go to Khaosarn Road for Phad Thai.
Kitty lives in Bangkok. This is her first post for PocketCultures, and she will be writing regularly on life in Thailand. More here.