Monday, 23 October 2006

constant craving

Thanks for the mutual support on the tram seat dilemma. I am deeply impressed by the creativity some of you have for getting a bum shifted. I might write a letter asking our public transport gods to consider better signage and badges.

Now onto something closer to my heart - in a good way. I was reading Loobylu and noticed she'd tagged a recipe for Pad Thai she wanted to try. Along with Som Tam, Pad Thai is one of my favourite Thai meals and I couldn't count how many plates of the stuff I ate whilst we lived in Thailand. Sadly, D isn't so enamoured of it, so I don't cook it much unless he's away.

Even sadder to me is how many really crap versions I've eaten here in Oz. It's not that I'm a purist, it's just that I love the dish as it is made in Thailand so much, I often find the variations a real disappointment. In Thailand the dish is common precisely because it's quick, easy and nutritious, packed with fresh ingredients whipped up in a minute by the side of the road. What we get here is a mixture of poor ingredient substitution and slack preparation - both totally unnecesary when you know how easy it is to do it the way the Thais do. The version Loobylu has tagged looks delicious, but is not the Pad Thai I know and love.

When I was living in Chiang Mai I had a great time going to Yui's Thai cooking school, and one of the dishes I learned a lot about was Pad Thai. So I thought I'd share the recipe and the tips I learned from her.

Pad Thai

3 tbs vegetable oil
1/4 cup firm tofu, cut in sticks
1 tbs shallots (not spring onions), chopped
1 tbs garlic, chopped
50 gm minced pork (can be omitted for vegetarians, or substituted with chicken mince)
1 tbs dried shrimp
1 tbs sweet pickled turnip, chopped (optional)
200gms fresh or 150gms dried rice noodles (the narrow flat kind). Don't pre-soak them in water!
4-6 tbs water
1 tbs fish sauce
1 tbs light soy sauce
2 tbs tamarind puree
1 1/2 tbs palm or brown sugar
100 gms bean sprouts
100 gms chinese chives (the flat not round kind), cut in 3cm lengths
2 eggs
2 tbs ground roasted peanuts

To serve:
Chili powder
Extra bean sprouts, chinese chives and peanuts
Limes cut in wedges for juice
Shredded cabbage
Banana Flower cut in wedges

In hot wok fry tofu and shallots in 2 tbs oil until golden brown. Add garlic, pork, dried shrimp and turnip (if using). Cook for a further minute.

Add noodles to the wok and immediately add water, stirring rapidly until noodles are soft. Add the fish and soy suaces, tamarind, and sugar and cook for another minute.

Add bean sprouts and chives and toss for another minute or two until chives turn a bright green.

Push all the ingredients to one side of the wok and quickly drizzle the remaining oil over the empty side of the wok. Pour eggs over the oiled wok surface so they start to quick cook. When the eggs are almost fully set, tip the noodles back on top of the eggs and stir to mix egg through.

Remove from heat and sprinkle with peanuts. Serve with chili powder, limes, shredded cabbage, more bean sprouts and chives and if you can get hold of it, some banana flower.

-In Australia anyway, all these ingredients (with the exception of perhaps the turnip and banana flower) are easily purchased from larger supermarkets, fresh food markets or Asian grocers. If you have trouble finding anything let me know and I'll see if I can help with other names or even get Yui to advise via email. In Melbourne you can do the full run of ingredients at the Vic market, in Richmond's Victoria St, Springvale market, Preston market or Box Hill. And probably lots of other places besides.

-Good dried shrimp should be plump but not too brightly coloured (the colour is added!), but any you can get will be fine. If you can't handle the dried shrimp thing you can use a couple of fresh prawns tossed in at the end.

-Don't try cooking a massive quantity of this at once, it is very hard to turn the ingredients in the pan and the noodles with either be hard or sticky. If you want more cook it in two batches. This amount should be fine for 2 for a light lunch or as one of a number of dishes shared between a larger group of people. Thai dinners usually include a curry, a stir fry, a salad, a soup and perhaps noodles.

-Cooking the noodles in the wok is the step most commonly skipped here in restaurants as they try to speed the process up by presoaking the noodles (often hours in advance) or by cooking larger quantities at a time. At home I can't recommend the wok process enough - they have a great al dante texture and don't stick together and you don't have to dirty an extra dish or drain hot water while you are trying to keep the food moving in the hot wok.

-It's worth getting the right noodles. The flavour and texture of rice noodles (as opposed to wheat and egg ones) are quite distinct and take up the subtle flavours of this dish really well. They can be bought as thin vermicelli, thin flat (somewhere between linguine and taglietelle) and wide flat (like Papardelle or even wider). Use the thin flat kind, or in a pinch the vermicelli.

-It's common here to try and up the veggie content for the health conscious by adding broccoli, beans or other greens. The Thais would rather have a healthy no oil salad on the side or add an extra handful of raw bean sprouts and chives to achieve the same end because the flavours are really overwhelmed by the addition of other veggies. Similarly it is common to Westernise the dish by adding extra meat, usually chicken. Really, there's no need. If you must add more, toss in a few uncooked prawns towards the end.

-Have all your ingredients out and ready to roll, either premeasured or in containers with appropriate measuring spoons already in them. I usually line them up in the order you need to add them and then the whole cooking bit is really simple and quick.

-Thai food places a great importance on balancing sweet, sour, salty and hot flavours. As all ingredients have variations in intensity, you should taste and adjust for your preference. This is why Thais serve dishes like this with lots of side garnishes like chili powder, lime, fish sauce and sugar. Once you have made this dish once or twice you will adjust the quantities you use quite by habit.

**Kay - Pickled turnip is sold loose by the weight in Thailand. If you ask for it at your market and get an alternative name in English - please let me know! Banana flowers are the flowers from the banana tree, probably from a variety that doesn't produce edible fruits. It is a very large cone shaped flower that is cut in wedges and eaten as a side garnish to a number of dishes. In this picture the small yellow fringe around the top near the stem would develop onto a row of bananas (if it were an edible variety). There are many tree varieties in Thailand, some produce amazing tiny pink bananas! I'm pretty sure they aren't edible and I never saw them used as decorations either.


Barbara said...

Well, that looks yummy -- a bonus, as I just popped by to tell you I read your Q&A on Crafty Mamas just a short hour or so after seeing your little animal-puzzle piece on display at Morphe! I think it was my favourite one. I love teeny things. Nicely done!

Kay said...

Marvelous recipe! Thank you! I've never been to Thailand, but love the food -- there are a couple of very good Thai restaurants here in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Also we have a wonderful Asian market where I can buy just about anything, including fresh Asian vegetables. I have not seen pickled turnip (canned? bottled?), but maybe it has another name or a Thai name that I could look for? And what on earth is banana flower?! I think I would love something called banana flower!

stephanie s said...

thanks for the recipe, i am going to give it a try, since the only ones i have come across here (without much looking) have had ketchup(!?!) to provide color... i am thinking the tamarind will be better for that... and those banana flowers are fascinating.

Belinda said...

I'm a big fan of pad Thai too and have taken a few cooking classes when I've been in Thailand. What I find interesting is that even the thais seem to cook the dish differently depending on the area your in. In the south I've only seen it with prawns and the noodles weren't toss in until half way through..

sooz said...

Yes, Ketchup is a very popular 'modern' alternative to the traditional tamarind and sugar ingredients to achieve the sweet/sour balance. I've seen Thais add it to almost everything...

Regional differences are indeed huge. The Nth features a lot less fresh seafood (but has great river fish), and Isaan (where it is stinking hot) has a lot less 'instant cook' meals like Pad Thai.

In general Thais are great advocates of experimentation and improvisation in cooking, using what they have on hand and what is readily available in their area to reproduce the right balance of sweet, sour, salty and hot flavours.