My first encounter of pad Thai was when I was a young teen experiencing my first-ever “munchies.” I was at my friend’s house and we went on a scavenge hunt for food. In the fridge, we discovered leftovers in a styrofoam box of what looked like a rather unappealing matted mass of cold noodles. Perplexed, I asked, “What is this?” When I heard the words pad Thai, I recall being so confused and thinking I must have misheard it. To be fair, I was also on the planet Jupiter at the time. My friend and I stood in the kitchen, giggling, passing the fork back and forth, eating cold, insanely scrumptious leftover pad Thai. That continues to be a very powerful memory from my adolescence.
Pad Thai I have had at restaurants since were variable but for the most part disappointing. It usually tastes like overdone rice noodles stir-fried in ketchup. Based on reading around on the inter-webs, that is probably an accurate description for most restaurants in Canada. It never lived up to that amazing cold, leftover pad Thai from god-knows-where. Dejected, I chalked it up to the munchies and moved on from pad Thai and never ordered it again at restaurants (and I still don’t).
Fast forward to January 2018 when I was on the CaRMS tour (residency interviews for medical students). I was passing through London, Ontario for my Western interview and visited my good friend who is an ENT (ear/nose/throat surgery) resident there. An avid home cook herself, she told me she was planning to make pad Thai for dinner. Now, this is definitely oversharing, but it is important to this story: I have a strong gastrointestinal response to stress (my bowels get “stunned” during high-anxiety periods). Because I was traveling and interviewing daily, my body was under a lot of stress, and I told her I would rather eat something with a lot fibre (i.e., NOT noodles) lest the train stops to a creaking halt. “No problem,” she said, “I’ll add a shit load of veggies.”
When I arrived, she had prepped the ingredients and walked me through the cooking process. I couldn’t believe how ridiculously simple it was. I started making pad Thai myself ever since and I love it because I get to control what goes into it. My homemade version is less oily, less sweet/ketchupy, and way more flavourful than restaurant versions. I am not shy about my use of aromatics and herbs. And I always add incognito vegetables to make it an appropriate meal-prep recipe so that I am getting my vegetables throughout the week!
Ditch that ketchup: you will go on a trip to see your nearest Asian grocer. In Kingston, I go to Asian Market at Barrie and Princess. The owners are incredibly kind and helpful whenever I go there. They have yet to disappoint me when I am looking for the most obscure ingredient that no one has ever heard of. Amazing little store!
You will need three ingredients for the sauce: tamarind concentrate, fish sauce, and palm sugar.
Tamarind concentrate is a common item in Asian grocery stores and should not be difficult to find. It is extracted from Tamarindus indica, a leguminous tree whose fruits are harvested for their acidic pulp. It has a very distinct sour flavour that is key to making pad Thai. If there are multiple brands, be sure to choose the one that says 100% concentrate and not ones that are diluted with water (which then by definition is not concentrate).
Different fish sauce brands are varying in quality and flavour. I buy this one from my Asian grocer:
To make pad Thai as authentically as possible, try to find palm sugar. It is an unrefined sugar which imparts a deeper, less sweet flavour to the dish than refined white sugar. It nicely balances the acidity of the tamarind without overpowering it with sweetness. However, if unable to find, you can use brown or coconut sugar.
Mise en place
Most of the work for pad Thai is in the prep. Once you stoke the fire, everything must come together very quickly, so be sure to have all ingredients chopped, julienned, soaked, ready in their final form before being added to heat.
The very first step is to soak the noodles. I prefer to soak the dried rice sticks in cool water while I prep the rest of the ingredients. I do not like soaking in hot water or, even worse, boiling the noodles, because it becomes overcooked prior to the stir-fry. There are few things I detest as much as mushy noodles. If you forget to do this step first, you might have to resort to the overcooking method. The noodles should be pliable but firm when being added to the wok/pan, not floppy.
Aromatics deliver a flavour base to the dish: shallots, garlic, and Thai chilis. The Thai chilis lose their heat when cooked, so don’t be alarmed. Be careful chopping these babies with bare hands. I use a piece of paper towel under my fingers to prevent transfer of capsaicin.
For incognito vegetables, you can really choose to add anything. I always have carrots and broccoli, but sometimes will also add thinly sliced pepper. You can buy julienned carrots in a bag, but I decided to practice my knife skills today. I roughly chopped the broccoli to make them barely noticeable, because — let’s face it — I’m here for those noods, not the veg. I purposely do not add bean sprouts because I personally do not enjoy them. Feel free to get creative and add whatever your heart desires.
An important part of the mise en place are the final touches. Gone are the days of prepping herbs and garnish as my food is already plated and going cold. Cilantro, Thai basil, and green onions are washed, picked, and chopped before anything touches heat.
A note on soy sauce: I might be chastised for adding soy sauce to pad Thai, but I think it produces a greater depth with its umami flavour. I also find its saltiness balances out the sour tamarind. Without it, there’s no saltiness in the dish which, never having been to Thailand, I’m not sure how they get around. You can experiment with or without.
Shrimp is my favourite but you can add whatever protein you would like, such as chicken or tofu.
Full Recipe: Low-Key Healthy Pad Thai with Shrimp
350 g dried rice sticks
3 tbsp tamarind concentrate
56 g (approx. 1/4 cup) palm sugar
2 tbsp fish sauce
1/4 cup water
flavourless oil (e.g., peanut)
1 shallot, thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, roughly minced
2 Thai chilis, minced, plus extra for topping (optional)
1 head broccoli florets, diced (~1 cup)
2 small carrots, julienned (~1.5 cups)
1 tbsp pure soy sauce
1/2 cup peanuts, roasted and chopped
1 cup cilantro including stems, chopped
1 cup Thai basil leaves, torn
2 green onions, diagonally sliced (green parts only)
1 lime, wedged
400 g black tiger shrimp, deveined and peeled, patted dry with paper towel
3 large eggs
- Fill a very large bowl with cool tap water and soak the dried rice noodles. Set aside.
- Prepare your mise en place, all ingredients ready to go.
- In a small saucepan, heat the tamarind concentrate, palm sugar, fish sauce, and water on high, stirring frequently. Once it boils, turn heat down to low and simmer. Stir until palm sugar has completely dissolved.
- Heat a large wok or a high-edged pan on medium, then approx. 2 tbsp of oil. Fry the shrimp without overcrowding until pink and no longer translucent, 2 to 3 min per side. Then remove from wok/pan and set aside.
- Add approx. 1 additional tbsp of oil to the same wok/pan. Add the shallots, garlic, and chilis, and sauté until the shallots are translucent and garlic is lightly browned, about 2 min. Then add the broccoli, carrots, and/or other vegetables of your choice. Crank up the heat to high and continuously stir while frying, about 1 min.
- Lift the noodles out of the soaking water and add to the wok along with the sauce. Add the 1 tbsp soy sauce, or more to taste. Stir-fry continuously until the noodles have absorbed all of the sauce.
- Create an empty area on the wok/pan by pushing the contents to one side. Crack all 3 eggs there and scramble in the pan, about 1 minute. When fluffy and no longer runny, fold into the noodles. Remove from heat and fold in the shrimps to warm up.
- Serve with generous amounts of cilantro, Thai basil, green onions, peanuts, extra chilis (if you dare), and a squeeze of lime.