Friday, December 30, 2011

Pad Thai - key elements for making a successful Pad Thai

Every country has a national dish that it’s famous for and is found everywhere. Pad Thai is a dish you will often see listed as the top Thai dish, sometimes it’s a toss up between Tom Yam soup and Pad Thai, but I think that Pad Thai is more representative of Thai cuisine as it’s the ultimate street food and you will often find food carts in Thailand cooking it fresh on the streets.

(Photo I took of a street cart selling Pad Thai in Bangkok)

When I traveled to Bangkok in September, I had Pad Thai almost every day. It was everywhere, so it was hard to avoid eating. I’ve always enjoyed eating Pad Thai and it’s a dish that I would often order at home in Perth, so while I was in Bangkok I was interested in trying Pad Thai as often as possible to see how it was cooked, and explore its taste and the ingredients used to cook it.

Ever since coming back from Bangkok I wanted to recreate the Pad Thai that I had there. I consulted my Thai bible aka David Thompson’s Thai Food and my favourite Thai food blogs Chez Pim and She Simmers.

From my research, I learnt that the three key elements for a successful Pad Thai are:
  • Premixing the sauce beforehand – A Pad Thai needs to be fried up quickly so there is little time for adding in and adjusting all the seasonings as you cook. Premix a batch of the sauce and spoon it in as you cook (any unused sauce keeps well in the fridge). When you taste the sauce it will appear quite pungent but keep in mind that once you use it to cook Pad Thai and add in all the other ingredients, the flavour will be diluted somewhat, so make sure that as you premix the sauce it maintains a robust flavour – it should mainly taste salty and sour with a slight sweetness.
  • Getting the texture of the noodles right – Pad Thai noodles should be soft but also a little chewy, and not overcooked, gummy or mushy. To get this texture, buy dried rice noodles and soak the noodles with room temperature water to soften, not boil. I have never thought of just soaking noodles before cooking, I have always boiled or blanched them. You need to undersoak the noodles a little as they will continue to soften as it cooks in the pan. The noodles should be pliable but still firm, check that it passes the swirl around the finger test.
  • Using a large frying pan instead of a wok – I always use a wok so I would have never thought of using a frying pan to cook Pad Thai until I read a detailed blog post from She Shimmers which recommends the use of a flat bottomed pan. The large surface area helps the sauce to absorb more and the excess moisture evaporates to allow more browning of the noodles. It also provides more space for stirring and frying to ensure that everything cooks evenly. I found Pad Thai easier to cook in a frying pan.
 Swirl around the finger test for soaking dried rice noodles

Here’s my rendition of Pad Thai, I’m pretty happy with the result.


Pad Thai sauce (Adapted from David Thompson’s Thai Food - makes around ¾ cup and can be used to cook 2-3 serves of Pad Thai, increase quantities to make more sauce)

•    3 tablespoons palm sugar (I grated my palm sugar before adding it)
•    1 tablespoon white sugar
•    3 tablespoons prepared tamarind pulp
•    5 ½ tablespoons fish sauce
•    pinch of ground chilli powder

To prepare the tamarind pulp – buy a block of shelled and seeded tamarind, soak required amount in hot water for 10-15 minutes, mash up with a spoon and then strain.

Tamarind Block
 Tamarind soaking in hot water
Mashed up tamarind
 Strained tamarind pulp

For one serve of Pad Thai

•    Peanut oil
•    Handful/2 loosely packed cups of dried thin rice noodles (Banh Pho) which has been reconstituted
•    ¼ cup of minced chicken/chopped into small pieces (about ½ a chicken thigh)
•    5 prawns, shelled and deveined
•    pinch of ground chilli powder
•    Handful of Bean sprouts (plus extra for garnish)
•    Handful of Chinese flat leaf garlic chives, chopped into 2 inch lengths (plus extra for garnish)
•    ½ shallot, thinly sliced
•    1 clove crushed garlic
•    1 Egg
•    1-2 tablespoons crushed roasted peanuts
•    wedge of lime

Note: You can also add in some sliced firm tofu.

 Chinese flat leaf garlic chives
Sliced shallots and minced garlic

This was the packet of dried rice noodles that I used, available from most Asian supermarkets. How did I know that it would be the right one to use? Well the back of the packet said that it was a product of Thailand and that was good enough for me.


(Reference: David Thompson’s Thai Food, Chez Pim and She Simmers)

Soak the dried rice noodles in room temperature water for 30-45 minutes until it softens and is pliable. Drain well. 

 Prepare the sauce – simmer the palm sugar, white sugar, tamarind pulp and fish sauce for 1-2 minutes until dissolved. Taste and adjust the flavour balance until it suits you. 

Note: It’s best to make one serving at a time!

Heat up frying pan and add in some peanut oil (add in more oil throughout the cooking process as necessary, ie: when things start to stick to the pan). Add in the minced chicken, fry until halfway done then add in 1-2 teaspoons of sauce to flavour the chicken.

Add in the rice noodles, 2-3 tablespoons of sauce and fry rigorously, stirring everything around (the amount of sauce added to the Pad Thai can be adjusted according to how strong a flavour you like). Add in some water, a tablespoon at a time, if the sauce evaporates too quickly and/or the noodles get dry and haven’t cooked through yet. Keep the noodles moving around constantly to keep from burning or forming a crust. Cook until the noodles are soft. 

When the noodles are ready (pull out a strand to taste), push the noodles to one side of the pan and add in the prawns, shallots and garlic, and cook until the prawns are nearly done. Then add in the bean sprouts and garlic chives, and quickly toss everything together. Taste and check the seasoning, add more sauce if necessary and a pinch of chilli powder if more heat is desired. Create some space in the middle of the frying pan and crack in the egg, let it sit for 10-15 seconds and then fry everything together. 

Serve the Pad Thai on a plate with crushed roasted peanuts, wedge of lime and some extra bean sprouts and garlic chives.

Wipe down the pan and then make another serve.

Squeezing lime over Pad Thai


  1. Your pad thai looks really delicious. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Thanks Liz, I'm glad you enjoy the recipe :)

  3. Delicious!! I love pad thai!

  4. Thank you SO much for the detailed instructions and play by play with pics! Much appreciated:):):)