What is Phad Thai Anyway?

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If you do a Phad Thai image search you will be amazed at how many variations there are. Type "ผัดไทยกุ้งสด" the Thai script for phad thai into google images and again and you will see that even Thai people don't appear to have any definitive concept of what phad thai is. If you look up "authentic phad thai recipe", again various "experts" will tell you their version is "just like in Thailand" or whatever. Most recipes do have some ingredients in common, such as tamarind, palm sugar, and fish sauce, but otherwise it seems to be a free for all.

world's best phad thai
I've been making phad thai professionally for 25 years in various restaurants,bars and cafes. I first learned to make it from a hippy guy when I worked at a place called Zooey's on Queen West in Toronto in 1990. Since then I've been slowly perfecting it over the years and I've got it down. Everyone loves it, but I'll tell you a secret, it's not phad thai.
Recently I had a Phad Thai Showdown against my friend and accomplished Thai chef Joey in Copenhagen. Both were good, but ultimately most people thought mine was better. I watched Joey make his and it seemed very authentic, and that's the problem. By nature, phad thai is a pretty boring dish. People who love Thai Cuisine expect certain things. Big bold flavours like you get in Tom Yum or Massaman Curry . Phad thai doesn't traditionally have those things. I know what the punters want. I threw the kitchen sink of Thai flavours into my version. Besides the necessary tamarind, fish sauce and palm sugar, I put lemongrass, kaffir, galangal, red curry paste, oyster sauce, sriracha, rice vinegar, and yes, even the dreaded ketchup! Joey's very nice traditional version didn't stand a chance against the Thai food bomb that exploded on my plate.
 I've pulled this stunt against Italian chefs and Caribbean cooks as well, sneaking nontraditional things into their cherished national dishes and coming out on top. There's a lesson to be learned. You don't cook for yourself, or some sacred ideal of what a dish should be. You cook for your customers, and you need to understand what their expectations are. I learned this the hard way from the famous "sheppard's pie incident" in Scotland, which I will relate to you another time. Believe me, you can slave in the kitchen over technique, sourcing the best ingredients, use your grandma's best recipe and put all your love and soul into a dish, but If doesn't match what the customer imagines, or what they are used to eating, the work will not pay off.

 I don't eat phad thai very often in Thailand. There are just way too many more interesting things to eat. Often I hear backpackers and expats scoff at the tourists eating phad thai on Khao San Road. I've eaten it there, and yeah it's not so great. I've also had it at road stands in other parts on Bangkok, like the photo above, that are very specifically not for tourists, and you know what? It's the same. Not so great. In Thailand for the most part, phad thai is a cheap filling dish that will get you by until your next meal. It's like a cheap hotdog, or one of those Jamaican patties you get in a corner store. If you are hungry and want to eat then eat it. The motto cabbie thinks it's alright.

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Thip Samai
On my last trip to Bangkok I finally made it to Mahachai Road to eat at the famous Thip Samai restaurant where they have been making phad thai for 50 years. There are actually two phad thai places almost side by side. I tried both, and although they were similar, I think the smaller lesser known place was superior, and I'm not just saying that to be some kind of hipster. It really was better. I think the place next to Thip Samai is called Pad Thai Loong Pha, but I'm not positive. It's about 3 doors down towards Democracy Monument. You can't miss it

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Pad Thai Loong Pha
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The red stuff in the pot is pure shrimp goodness
The thing that makes these two places unique is the sauce. A bright red stock made of shrimp heads. The other ingredients seem to be the standards, plus preserved radish, and the tiny dried shrimps for extra punch. The phad thai are made in quite large batches, then divided up for both takeaway and the sit down customers. Most people order Pad Thai Haw Kai Goong Sot. This is phad thai with shrimp wrapped in an omelette. It's a great presentation and no matter what recipe for phad thai you use, if you can learn the technique, you are bound to impress. I watched the woman at Pad Thai Loong Pha wrap about 20 portions. I'm going to practice when I get back to Copenhagen.
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Learn to do this!
bangkok phad thai
How it is presented
When you cut into the omelette, steam and the smell of rich shrimp essence rushes out. Lime,bean sprouts,chili, and peanuts are on the side to garnish as I did in the lead photo. It very interesting to sit and watch the dozens of phad thais being made and wrapped. The versions of phad thai i had on Mahachai Road were unlike any phad thai I have ever tasted, but although the sauce was as rich as bisque at both Thip Samai and Loong Pha, they were a little bland compared to the dozens of amazing things you can eat in Thailand on almost any corner. That's ok though, because that's what phad thai is meant to be. So what is phad thai? It's pleasant, and a little bit boring. Like a sweater vest, or trip hop music

Pad Thai Loong Pha bangkok thailand
This woman loves her job

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Menu at Pad Thai Loong Pha
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