Thursday, June 1, 2017

My Homemade Pad Thai

Ok, I'll be honest. When it comes to Pad Thai, I'm utterly, hopelessly, desperately spoiled.

First of all, I learned to love this Southeast Asian delight at the dining tables and food stalls of my friends in Malaysia. What reads as exotic fare to me is simply home-cooking to them, and their love for and familiarity of the dish shone through in their handiwork.

And following up my fantastical foreign feasts, I found a local Seattle joint that serves up an equally legitimate plate of the good stuff. Thai Tom's on the Ave is not known for its comfortable surroundings or courteous staff, but they can cook like the proper Thais that they are, and their food definitely rings true to my Asian experiences.

So it was with very high expectations and a shocking lack of experience with these flavors that I set about perfecting my own version of Pad Thai. And I readily confess that my early experiments were disappointing.

Dry
Sticky
Flavorless
Bland

Oh sure, I was still clearing the bar set by the typical American suburban interpretation of Pad Thai, as served up in styrofoam clamshells for convenient takeaway at the local strip mall Asian fusion joints. But my goals were loftier than that.


Behold the beauty of my latest attempt:

The proportions of veggies to proteins to noodles to sauce are perfect.
The flavors are spot on.
And every bite is a tiny explosion of Asian deliciousness that takes me right back to my first flirtations with this dish.

* * * * *

Here's the recipe that finally led me to this flavorful Nirvana:

For the noodles:
  • 8 ounces dried rice sticks

For the sauce:
  • a big, fat tablespoon of tamarind pulp, soaked in 4 T of hot water
  • 4 T brown sugar
  • 4 T fish sauce
To chop up and then saute together:
  • 2 shallots
  • an onion
  • 4 or 5 cloves of garlic
  • a box of extra firm tofu
  • 1 pound of large raw shrimp, cleaned
  • 3 eggs
  • 6 green onions
  • 2 cups bean sprouts
To garnish:
  • lime wedges
  • red chili flakes
  • peanuts, chopped

1. Set the noodles to soak.
2. Set the tamarind pulp to soak.

HINT: If you do not have a sweet friend named Rungfa who literally delivers this exotic spice from her own kitchen to your door, you can easily order it off Amazon.

3., Chop everything up.
4. Stir the brown sugar and fish sauce into the tamarind and water. Set aside.
5. Add a nice splash of cooking oil to a wok over medium high heat. Add shallot, onion, garlic, tofu, and shrimp. Cook until the shrimp are white and curly. Set all that aside in a big bowl.

HINT: I should probably own a wok. But I don't. So when I need to stir fry, I haul out my big black cast iron beast and make no apology for it. Feel free to improvise.

6. Heat more oil into the now-empty wok, drain the noodles and cook them in the oil for a minute or two. Push then to one side of the wok.
7. Crack the eggs directly into the wok alongside the noodles, and scramble them. Cook until set.
8. Add the sauteed veggies, shrimp and tofu into the wok.
9. Fold in the sauce, and then the green onions and bean sprouts.

HINT: My mainstream grocery stores are afraid of salmonella poisonings, so they no longer carry fresh sprouts. I have to settle for the canned version, found in the Asian aisle. However, if I take the time to go to an Asian market, I can usually find fresh.

AND THE BIGGEST HINT OF ALL:
Watch the proportions! Nothing is worse than a soggy ball of dry rice noodles pretending to be a delicious Asian feast. My end game is to always go low on noodles and high on sauce; it's easy enough to add another handful of noodles but devilishly complicated to fish out undesired noodles from the sauce.

(My recipe was inspired by this one. I owe its author a debt of gratitude. Or maybe a helping of Pad Thai)

* * * * *

I will admit, it took me a fair amount of perseverance and patience to get this dish right. I can only thank those who inspired me to keep trying:

To Baby Boy, who made me so many delicious dishes at his food stall in Shah Alam.
To Kama, who fed me untold plates of delicious food in Thai-inspired Kelantan.
To Nana, who bought me Pad Thai in Langkawi.
To Chris, who got chased down the street by the waitress at Thai Tom's which convinced me that there had to be a better way to eat delicious Pad Thai.
To Mr. David, my boss during my high school sous chef days, who taught me not to cook but to believe that I could learn to cook anything I wanted

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