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Pad Thai for the people

(article, Matthew Amster-Burton)

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Shortly after my wife and I moved to Seattle in 1996, she brought me a styrofoam container of pad Thai from a nearby restaurant, Siam on Broadway. Pad Thai was already Seattle's civic dish at the time, but I was new to the area, and to Thai food in general. I poked a fork in and wondered what this stuff was all about.


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This was unabashedly American-style pad Thai: sweet and saucy and red from tomato paste, and plenty spicy. It was one rich, luscious tangle of noodles. Suddenly Seattle's obsession with the stuff made sense. (Nowadays, there are well over 100 Thai restaurants in town, and pad Thai is probably the most popular order at all of them.)

I've ordered the same pad Thai about once every two weeks since then. A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation tells me that I've eaten at least 300 pounds of the stuff. I've comparison-shopped at other Thai restaurants in town and on Bangkok street corners. I've had pad Thai wrapped in an omelet, pad Thai served with astringent banana blossoms, pad Thai with ketchup, pad Thai with chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, tofu, and assorted vegetables. And I’ve had pad Thai made by me, at home.

[%image reference-image float=left width=400 credit="Photo courtesy Matthew Amster-Burton" caption="Pad Thai: the ultimate lunch."]

In the last 12 years, my tastes in pad Thai haven't changed so much as diverged. I remain loyal to the sweet and thick pad Thai of my formative years, but when I make it at home, it's lighter, less meaty, and tomato-free. The same thing has happened with burgers (er, not the "less meaty" part): I make a great burger at home with high-quality, freshly ground beef, but I still enjoy a good fast-food burger, like an In-N-Out Double-Double.

My standard pad Thai at home is straight out of Cook's Illustrated, with a couple of tweaks. I've reduced the amount of tamarind, and I've also created a kid-oriented variation that keeps the essential flavors (fish sauce, tamarind), omits the challenging "bits" (bean sprouts, red chile), and is easy to make without being a short-order cook.

Let's be honest: Pad Thai at home is a pretty serious undertaking. It's not hard, but it requires a lot of shopping and chopping. Here are some tips for making the process easier.

 Plan to whip up some pad Thai several times during the same week. (You know you want it.) When I get a craving, I often make it for lunch days in a row. The sauce keeps well in the fridge for a week, as do most of the prepped ingredients. Bean sprouts, why must you be so perishable?

 Chopping peanuts by hand leads to flying nuts, injury, and misery. The coffee grinder takes care of them in about two seconds.

 Pad Thai sauce in a jar is not bad at all, especially if you choose a Thai brand such as Maesri rather than an American one (such as A Taste of Thai or Thai Kitchen). Jarred sauce isn't as flavorful as homemade, so I end up squeezing on more lime juice before eating, but it's far better than no pad Thai at all. And it doesn't contain preservatives or anything else weird. If you're skeptical, look at this beautiful pad Thai made by Mae Gabriel, of the blog Rice and Noodles.

 Many different proteins work well in pad Thai, but the single most convenient one is frozen shrimp.

 If you're making pad Thai for a crowd, don't try to cram a pound of noodles into the pan. I prefer to cook four ounces of noodles (about two servings) at a time, and once everything is prepped, a batch comes together in three minutes. Nobody will mind waiting three minutes for fresh, hot noodles. In this regard, pad Thai is just like pancakes. As Pim Techamuanvivit puts it in her own pad Thai treatise, "When my guests arrive I get the wok smoking hot and make one or two portions at a time until everyone has their fill of the noodle-y goodness."

If you've read this far, I'm sending you on a mission. Once you get the hang of pad Thai at home, customize it. If you like tomato with your noodles, add some ketchup or tomato paste; I'm not going to rat you out. Want candy-sweet noodles? Go for it. Dried shrimp? By all means. Once you have your stash of secret sauce in the freezer, you can make pad Thai nearly on a whim. Before you know it, you'll have eaten 300 pounds of the stuff.

p(bio). [ "Matthew Amster-Burton"]* writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle. He keeps a blog titled Roots and Grubs.

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