Pad Thai

Even though some think it’s a cop-out ordering Pad Thai in a Thai restaurant, marking you as a newbie, I like it quite a bit. I do tend to go for Pad See Ew, wide pan-fried rice noodles, although I’m a little picky about them because I like the dish when the chewy ribbons of noodles have stuck to the wok and start sticking together, getting charred in the process, and the dish isn’t overly saucy. Chow fun can be made like that, if you order it dry-fried, which I do.

At a book event in Paris, Danette St. Onge stopped by and gave me a copy of her book, The Better-Than-Takeout Thai Cookbook, knowing that I liked to make foods from other countries. Being from California, foods from Asia are part of our DNA, regardless of our individual ancestry. I’m happy to be part of that mix, and in Paris, Asian restaurants are thriving (and usually packed) outside of the traditional quartiers asiatiques, most notably Belleville and the 13ème. Thai cuisine isn’t as well-represented as, say, Vietnamese (perhaps due to the seasonings), so I often take matters into my own hands, or wok, or skillet, and make it myself.

When I posted a nod to a Vietnamese cookbook I liked recently, some inquired, “Are the recipes authentic?” and I didn’t know how to answer. Would that mean the recipes are made exactly the same way they were first made, which might have been hundreds (or thousands) of years ago? Or were the recipes modified and adapted over the years, as new ingredients were available, or as immigrants searched for items similar to their home countries when they moved elsewhere? I don’t know too many recipes that have stayed exactly the same since their inception, and I’m not the only one who questions whether it matters, or not.

Incoming San Francisco Chronicle food writer and critic, Soleil Ho, described authenticity as “a shackle,” when vowing never to use that word. Others are distancing themselves from the term “cheap food” as it gets applied to foods from certain parts of the world, but not others. (For some reason, we seek out an eight-buck bowl of Pho or ramen, but don’t expect to find Cacio e pepe pasta at the same price point.) Admittedly, a lot of Asian food is “street food” meant to be made, and served, quickly (and inexpensively, I guess I should add…) – without a lot of fanfare, like Pad Thai.

Speaking of controversy, I’ve seen recipes for Pad Thai that use…wait for it… ketchup, in place of the tamarind paste. I’m not a big ketchup fan (I don’t even like it on fries) but it is America’s “umami,” just like mustard is the umami of France, and fish sauce is the umami of Vietnam. But ketchup‘s origin was in China (via Vietnam), and originally made differently than what we think of ketchup today; the other version is called kĕchap or ke-chiap and used in Malaysian and Singaporean cooking, hence the connection.

The great thing about being an adult, however, if that you can make – and eat – whatever you want. Well, as long as you don’t write about it on the internet ; ) But going shopping these days can be a loaded experience, whether you write about it or not, which I kept in my mind as I headed to Belleville to gather the ingredients to make Pad Thai.

Fortunately, all the ingredients are pretty readily available, even in Paris. The only one you might need to track down is tamarind paste, which you can buy already made, or make it yourself. (I did see a version of Pad Thai that uses distilled white vinegar, in lieu of tamarind paste, which I haven’t tried. But I did actually try the ketchup version when that book came out in 1997, but it’s pretty controversial.)

Danette’s recipe didn’t have dried shrimp in it, which I like in Pad Thai, which Andy Ricker uses, as it gives Pad Thai an underlying savory flavor. But in Paris, they cost €21,99 ($25) for a frozen 400g (nearly one-pound) bag, and I knew it would take me a long, long time to finish those off, if I used them by the tablespoon. So I passed.

Danette grew up in Thailand and California, where her parents operated a Thai restaurant. She also writes for food magazines and I have to say, the recipes in her book are remarkably well-written. You know, the kind of recipes where you feel like you can actually follow what she’s saying, and she gives you a heads-up about things to look for, what might go wrong (and how to avoid them), as well as do-ahead tips. I often read cookbooks and think, hmm, was there a better way to explain something? But The Better-Than-Takeout Thai Cookbook hit all the right notes for me. And all the flavors, too.

I especially appreciated her tips on buying the flat rice noodles used for Pad Thai. The store I went to had several shelves of dried rice noodles, but no flat ones. (I joke that the farther I go to buy something in Paris, the more chance there is that they will be out of it.) Facing an empty space where the flat noodles, theoretically, should have been – which Danette said are often labeled Chataboon or Jantaboon – I found them one aisle away, in their own special place, as if they were placed there just to prove my theory right.

Romain and I were lucky I found them and we were rewarded with a speedy, definitely better-than-takeout lunch. Once you have the ingredients gathered, and prepared, this Pad Thai can be made in minutes. You are welcome to cook the noodles in advance, prepare the sauce, trim the shrimp (if you’re a vegetarian or don’t eat shellfish, you can leave them out), slice the scallions, and chop the garlic. Then, when you’re ready to go, before you know it, you’ll be at the table, enjoying this better-than-takeout Pad Thai.

Pad Thai
Print Recipe
2 generous servings
Adapted from The Better-Than-Takeout Thai Cookbook by Danette St. OngeI like to add minced or crushed dried shrimp to my Pad Thai, but the ones I found in Paris were packed in 400g (about one pound) frozen bags, and were €22. I didn't think I'd use that amount very quickly, so I passed, but if you do, you add them in step 4, right after you saute the garlic. (Most Asian food shops in the U.S. sell dried shrimp in small bags.) Danette says you can use 1/3 cup of finely chopped dried shrimp in place of the fresh shrimp, "for a more traditional version," although I'd probably dial that down to one or two tablespoons.Some versions of Pad Thai have crushed dried Thai chiles added right after cooking, about 1/4 teaspoons, at the end of step 5, when adding the peanuts and other ingredients. A bit more can be sprinkled over the top, too.Pressed tofu, as shown in the post, often comes flavored with 5-spice powder, which was all I could find. Most stores that specialize in Asian ingredients carry it. If you can't find it, firm tofu is a decent substitute. Or you can make crispy tofu and cut the cubes into strips or smaller pieces for this recipe.This recipe cooks remarkably fast. It's best to prepare all the ingredients, so they're all ready to go when you heat up the skillet. The total cooking time is less than 5 minutes, so you'll want to be prepared.
4 ounces (115g) dried thin, flat rice noodles
1/4 cup (60ml) fish sauce
3 tablespoons (32g) granulated palm sugar or light brown sugar
2 tablespoons (40g) tamarind paste
3 tablespoons vegetable oil (total)
12 medium raw shrimp, peeled and deveined, with tails on (preferably)
2 tablespoons (20g) minced shallots
1 large garlic clove, peeled and minced
2 eggs, beaten together in a small bowl
1 1/2 cups (75g) bean sprouts (total)
3 ounces (80g) pressed tofu (see headnote)
3 scallions (just the green parts), cut into 1 1/2-inch (5cm) pieces
1/4 cup (35g) roasted peanuts, coarsely chopped, plus an additional 2-3 tablespoons (chopped) for garnish
fresh lime wedges, for garnish
1. Bring a saucepan of water to a boil. Turn off the heat and add the noodles. Let the noodles sit in the water for 5 minutes, stirring them a few times as they sit. Drain the noodles and rinse well under cold running water, separating the noodles with your fingers, and set aside.
2. Mix the fish sauce, palm sugar, and tamarind paste in a small bowl. Set aside.
3. Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a wok or large skillet over medium heat. Add the shrimp and cook, stirring occasionally, until they're just about cooked through, about 2 minutes. Remove the shrimp from the wok or skillet and set aside. (If you can only find pre-cooked shrimp, skip this step and have them ready to add later.)
4. Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil in the wok or skillet and add the shallots and garlic. Stir until fragrant, about 30 seconds to 1 minute, then add the cooked noodles and fish sauce mixture. Cook for about 1 minute, stirring, until everything is well combined.
5. Push the noodles to the side of the wok or skillet and add the eggs to the pan. Cook, stirring frequently, until they start to set, about 30 seconds, then add the cooked shrimp, 1 cup (50g) bean sprouts, the tofu, scallions, and 1/4 cup peanuts. Continue to cook, stirring, until everything is well combined and heated through, about 30 seconds. If the mixture looks a little dry (the noodles should be slicked with sauce with some extra floating around), add a tablespoon or so of water or chicken stock.
6. Transfer the Pad Thai to a serving plate. Serve sprinkled with the remaining bean sprouts, peanuts, and wedges of fresh lime alongside.

Related Recipes

Pim’s Pad Thai (Use Real Butter)

Pad Thai (in 5 parts) (She Simmers)

Andy Ricker talks about Thai Ingredients (Munchies)

David Thompson’s Pad Thai (Gourmet Traveler)

Tofu Press, for making your own pressed tofu (Amazon)

How to make tamarind paste (The Splendid Table)


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37 comments

  • Kiran
    March 8, 2019 10:05pm

    Very nice recipe. David; Tamarind paste (at least tamarind) can be easily found in almost all Indian grocery stores as it is widely used in Indian cuisine as well Reply

  • Asa
    March 8, 2019 10:35pm

    This looks great, as does the cookbook. I’m glad to see you mention the Night+Market version which uses vinegar instead of tamarind. I’d recommend you give that a try: it’s so easy, and so tasty. Also, the Night+Market cookbook is outstanding – I love his approach to cooking Thai food, and I’d be curious what you think of it. I think he’s allergic to the word authentic as well. In the end, I like the taste of tamarind, so I tend to make Pad Thai in multiple ways depending on what I feel like. Reply

    • March 9, 2019 7:58pm
      David Lebovitz

      I was really surprised when I saw his recipe with white vinegar in it. I don’t have his book (I have a few other Thai cookbooks, including those of Andy Ricker) but I like that he’s “allergic” to the word authentic. I know some younger cookbook authors feel that way, because they are a new generation of cooks and don’t want to be bound so heavily by tradition. I think people like Yotam Ottolenghi and Michael Solomonov have done it admirably with Middle Eastern cooking. Reply

      • Emily Tan
        March 14, 2019 5:05pm

        Could I suggest using Chinese Rice Vinegar, or even better, more lime juice instead of white vinegar which has a different flavour profile to me. Reply

  • Claire
    March 9, 2019 12:05am

    I love Pad Thai and it’s usually my “go to” dish when eating at a Thai restaurant. If that makes me non-adventurous then so be it. This recipe is so easy. Can’t wait to try it. Reply

  • Margaret
    March 9, 2019 2:08am

    This looks delicious — I’ve got to try it, thanks! Reply

  • Gayle
    March 9, 2019 3:08am

    It so happens we had a big snowstorm in the forecast here in New England a few weeks ago, so knowing I’d be bored, I bought a jar of tamarind paste and made homemade Worcestershire Sauce with some of it.

    Gonna use some more in Pad Thai this weekend :). Thanks! Reply

  • Anne E
    March 9, 2019 3:58am

    Sadly,all the decent Thai restaurants that I have enjoyed over the past 45 (or so) years in the East San Fernando Valley have closed. I first had Pad Thai at the neighborhood joint Erawan/ChiangSam across the street from the High School. When I became a bit more adventurous, I “graduated” to Pad Ki Mow, also called Drunk Mans’ Noodles ( classic hangover cure) as made at Chinda on the edge of Burbank and Glendale Glendale. Those 2 dishes at those 2 places were my benchmark dishes. Time passed, and I can no longer eat very spicy foods. All the surviving Thai places around here are mediocre, so seeing this rx is Heaven-Sent! Thank you David. PS: JSYK, I also get raves when I make your rx for Seville Orange Marmalade (which I sometimes make with kumquats). Reply

  • Tom L
    March 9, 2019 4:38am

    Just ordered the book; sounds great. Reply

    • Tom L
      March 9, 2019 7:29pm

      Got it for my Kindle reader and it is just what you said, David. Clear with lots of tips and work-arounds. We happen to have several Asian markets in our area, so we are lucky enough to be able to get most of the ingredients she recommends. Excellent book! Reply

  • Martha
    March 9, 2019 5:17am

    Once I read Leela Punyaratabandhu’s blog, She Simmers, and bought her outstanding cookbook “Simple Thai Food, I decided that I needed no other. I am glad you referenced her. Her recipes are amazing, especially her Mom’s peanut sauce recipe, which I make all the time. Reply

    • March 9, 2019 7:56pm
      David Lebovitz

      She’s amazing as well and I featured her book a while back with a recipe. I liked how she addressed the “what’s available” issue as well, and make Thai cooking accessible. She followed it up with Bangkok, which is much more involved, but equally terrific. Reply

  • stuart itter
    March 9, 2019 5:35am

    Hmmm. The dried shrimp have their own issues. Sometimes so hard you cannot smash them. While back queried Canadian Thai food writer Naomi Duguid who advised soaking them in warm water before trying to pound or smash them. Helped a lot. Reply

  • Saran
    March 9, 2019 7:03am

    In Thailand, we soak the noodles in cold water for an hour or until they get soft. Then, stir-fry the noodles and the sauce in the wok using high heat. The noodles won’t be mushy and will absorb all the flavors from the sauce. Try it and you’ll see the difference. Reply

    • March 9, 2019 7:53pm
      David Lebovitz

      That sounds like a good way to do it. I followed her instructions and mine came out fine but I’ll try it that way next time – thanks! Reply

    • BelleD
      March 9, 2019 9:29pm

      We soak the flat rice noodles for pho too. It cooks almost instantly when the boiling broth is added. The noodles don’t get mushy and is always perfect. Reply

    • Bonnie
      March 11, 2019 7:21pm

      I also found the noodles way to dry, even after soaking them an additional 5 or 6 minutes as in the recipe. I will definitely try the 1 hour suggestion. Reply

  • March 9, 2019 8:57am

    Salivating over the pictures and descriptions. I want to run to Belleville immediately and search for flat noodles. Love pad thai! Reply

  • Kim B.
    March 9, 2019 9:48am

    What Carol said!! Maybe I’ll metro up to Belleville this afternoon. I looove pad Thai, as “basic” as it might be considered.

    Danette’s book sounds wonderful, thanks for sharing with us. Your photos as always are gorgeous and make it all very tempting!!

    P.s. love the line about “cook however you want, as a long as you don’t write about it on the internet.” !!!!

    Have a great Saturday David. Reply

    • March 9, 2019 7:53pm
      David Lebovitz

      Thanks! Yes, it’s better to cook without feeling like you’re going to be reprimanded. Some people want to assert themselves (or show what they know), but many dishes have been modified over the years as new ingredients became available (Thai food, for example, didn’t always contain chiles) and circumstances (where you live, what’s available, etc.) I like traditions and think many should be stuck with, but I’m guilty of having a Chicken Caesar when stuck at an airport (or, if I felt like it) even if Caesar salad isn’t supposed to have chicken in it ;) Reply

  • Linda
    March 9, 2019 2:54pm

    I am also a great fan of Pad See Ew! Looking forward to trying this.

    As for why Vietnamese restaurants are more common in Paris than Thai, I would assume it has something to do with Vietnam being “colonized” by France for so many years. I can tell you that on my first visit to Paris in 1970, during our (US) war with Vietnam, I was shocked to see Vietnamese restaurants. It had never occurred to me (a NY teenager) that this war-torn country that looked so dire on the TV newscasts had a fine cuisine! But once I had my first Vietnamese dinner, I was a convert, and it’s been my favorite Asian cuisine ever since. Reply

    • Cristina
      March 11, 2019 3:22pm

      Came here to say the same. Like how curry is so common in Britain. Reply

      • Claudia
        March 12, 2019 10:16am

        Yes, exactly! Thank you both! Reply

  • Terry Zielinski
    March 9, 2019 3:52pm

    I will have to try this recipe. Love Pad Thai. Finding the Red Boat fish sauce was a challenge since both local Asian grocery stores did not carry it. Found it at Wegman’s. Have the Taramind paste. Having traveled extensively I believe Thai food is one of my top favorites. Reply

  • Susan
    March 9, 2019 6:35pm

    How about using shrimp paste if dried shrimp are not available, or not the most thrifty of purchases, as in your case. It’s in many Asian markets and is pretty cheap. I live near Providence and there are large communities of Vietnamese,Cambodian and Hmong in the city so markets are easy to find. Reply

    • March 9, 2019 7:49pm
      David Lebovitz

      Shrimp paste is much more pungent as it’s fermented, and it could be overwhelming in this dish. Reply

      • Susan
        March 9, 2019 8:42pm

        Ah! This is why one of us has a successful culinary career and one of us doesn’t. Thanks David Reply

  • Cherie Visconti
    March 10, 2019 1:18am

    Don’t you think the Vietnamese cuisine is most prevalent because it was once a French Territory? Similar to Indian food inLondon say.

    I live in Marin and get the the Sunday chronicle. What do you think of Ho? She wrote the whole section last Sunday . Did you read it? I’m not sure yet. Reply

  • Linda
    March 10, 2019 2:34am

    I guess the pressure is on when you, as a chef and cookbook author, order your choices in a restaurant but, it’s so silly, isn’t it?

    We go to a restaurant to order whatever we enjoy or feel like having at the moment. That’s the beauty of dining out – we get to ask for what we want, whether an old favorite or something new.

    I enjoy your blog and take on France, David. Love My Paris Kitchen and am laughing out loud, reading L’appart at 3 a.m. (almost finished. And no, it doesn’t put me to sleep; I love your humor and honesty. I just can’t stay awake all night!)

    Thank you for sharing your talents & all the good info about your experiences. Reply

  • Nina K
    March 10, 2019 10:21pm

    I like pad thai but I don’t really like bean sprouts. Is there another vegetable that can be substituted? Love all kinds of vegetables. Reply

    • Haiku Gardener
      March 11, 2019 2:52am

      How about sunflower sprouts? they are of a similar size, texture and crunch without that faint mustiness…

      I like that idea! I think I will have to give it a try! Reply

  • Gavrielle
    March 10, 2019 11:49pm

    I think there’s a place for the “Is it authentic?” question. Recipes are often changed a great deal for up out of whole cloth in the West, serving in the West, or even made like chop suey and chicken tikka masala. No shade to people who like the Westernised ones, but I don’t, and I like to know which type I’m getting. Someone recently recommended to me an Asian restaurant in Seattle, where I’m going this year, but when I looked at the menu I found it was heavily Westernised Asian. That would have wasted on me. As long as we leave the snobbery out of the question, I think it’s valid to ask it. Reply

    • Gavrielle
      March 10, 2019 11:51pm

      Wow! I don’t know what happened to this. It should have read: “Recipes are often changed a great deal for serving in the West, or even made up out of whole cloth in the West, like chop suey and chicken tikka masala.” Sheesh. Reply

  • Bonnie
    March 11, 2019 7:29pm

    Loved the recipe with a few alterations for my taste…added 1 T. more palm/brown sugar because I found the priginal recipe too sour. I added another tablespoon of chopped scallion tops for garnishing as well as 1 T. extra of the peanuts (I like a bit more crunch). Thanks for sharing Danette and David! Reply

  • june2
    March 12, 2019 12:10am

    Wow, the loyalty! I love that you found and linked Pim’s amazing pad thai recipe – I remember when she posted that originally, what a flashback. This recipe looks great for a faster version. Reply

  • Thomas
    March 12, 2019 7:44am

    I just returned from Thailand where I went on two food tours in Bangkok as well as tried out places on my own. I had Pad Thai a number of times and specifically researched into the “best” pad thai places in Bangkok and what was surprising was how widely they varied in taste and flavor. Some were dull and tasteless. The best one I had was actually at a random street stall with no real name and only one very busy and amazingly efficient cook.

    David, if you enjoyed Vietnam for the food, you really should try to go to Bangkok. In addition to the Thai cuisines, there’s a huge and ancient Chinatown in Bangkok with fabulous food. The better of the two food tours I took focused on Chinatown and took us to tiny hole in wall places off back alleys that themselves were off of other back alleys! and the food was cooked straight on the street itself. I had some incredibly flavorful broth and noodles that I still savor in my memory. And the malls themselves have excellent food courts with a wide range of Thai and Asian food stalls, so don’t rule those out either. Reply

  • Maclean Nash
    March 12, 2019 7:24pm

    Thank you so much for another amazing recipe and post!
    Regarding “authentic/authenticity” I despise the word!
    I come from a medical anthropological background and learned about the issues surrounding the word from that perspective. But, also being obsessed with food and culture, I think “authentic” is deeply problematic when describing food. Rarely do I think the intentions when people use it as an adjective are ill-willed but we have no idea of the issues and hurt it can bring up when it IS used. And bottom line – what on Earth does “authentic” mean? I was having a discussion about it a while back at a dinner party and everyone there thought I was taking it too seriously (maybe, I was?). But I shifted the perspective and brought up “authentic selves” – another set of words that gets thrown around willy nilly. What/Who, is our “authentic self” – is it when I am on my own? Is it when I am with my mother? My sister? Is it when a parent is parenting? Or when we are beside our partner? Or maybe our authentic self is when we are in our element and being badass in a meeting? Of course – there is no one answer because “authenticity” does’t exist. We are not static in ourselves and neither is food or culture. It is always in motion, changing, adapting, growing.

    On another note – there is a restaurant in my neighbourhood and they describe their food as “semi-authentic” Mexican.
    I. Lost. It. Reply

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