Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Pad Thai Is A Beautiful Thing

My Pad Thai ExperienceOnly once have I had Thai food, it was pad thai (or phad thai, or whatever--too many hs for my comfort) and it tasted as if it had been made with little packets of McDonald's ketchup. That is, not good. Enough that I thought "So what is the deal with this stuff? How can 60 million Thai be so very wrong?"

But in my internet wanderings I found a recipe at Chez Pim for pad thai that sounded so exciting. My sister and brother in law were coming to dinner and as pad thai is a favorite of theirs and I was in an adventurous mood I decided to give it a go.

Of course this breaks the number one commandment of cooking (well, besides the one about not getting sloppy with the knives and losing a finger in the salad) which is: "Thou shalt not experiment with new dishes upon thy guests." But hey, they're family. I figured if it turned out gross I'd happily pull out a box of mac and cheese and in my most Martha-esque manner garnish it with parsley and they'd go home full one way or another.

I read through the four-page instructions twice and made a list of ingredients:

Fish Sauce, Rice Sticks, Tamarind Pulp and Palm Sugar1/2 cup palm sugar
1/2 cup fish sauce
1/2 cup tamarind pulp
2 teaspoons Thai chili powder
1 package rice stick noodles
4 eggs
1/2 pound baby shrimp
1/2 cup chopped green onions
3 cups bean sprouts
minced garlic
canola oil for frying
sliced limes for garnish
(this makes enough to serve 3-4)

Palm sugar? Fish sauce? Tamarind pulp? The ingredients couldn't have been weirder if they'd said wookie juice, cream of condor and toothpaste. Luckily we have a smashing Asian market here, New Sagaya, and they carried everything I couldn't find in the Asian section of my regular grocery store. Total cost? Approximately $19.30 for dinner for eight.

So don't let the bizarre ingredients put you off--you can do this too, I promise!

The great thing about pad thai I discovered is that it can be a social event, you assemble all the ingredients ahead of time at your cooking station and then like some crazy Bangkok street vendor you whip up the batches right there until everyone cries uncle--or whatever the Thai equivalent of uncle would be. Completely fun!

Block of Tamarind PulpSo Sunday afternoon found me making the sauce which, despite the odd ingredients, is really easy to make. You take equal amounts of fish sauce, palm sugar and tamarind pulp and heat them over a stove until the sugar melts then add the chili powder. That's it! You can use the amounts I have listed above or double it to serve eight as I did.

Pureed Tamarind PulpI have yet to discover what tamarind pulp is, if I were to go by the packaging it would seem to be a pepper or fruit of some kind but of course that's not necessarily a reliable source, for all I know tamarind pulp could just be another name for hamster niblets. But at any rate it came in a vacuum-packaged block that you soak in four cups of very hot water, breaking it up with a spoon and then a mixer until it resembles a messy, pulpy version of ketchup. But don't let that fool you this ain't ketchup.

It smells . . . odd. Not bad, just very odd. Kind of the way root beer would smell odd if you'd never smelled it before. I mean now you know "Hey, that's root beer!" but if it were the first time you smelled it you would surely go, "Eck! What is that?"

Tamarind SeedsAnyway, you strain the sludge and toss what doesn't make it through the sieve, but don't toss it down your garbage disposal. Mixed in with the pulp are these rock-hard little seeds that will make you think you'd accidentally left a bag of hammers in your disposal, based on all the noise they make going around in there. I think I'm going to plant them and see what grows. Then we'll see what tamarind is.

The fish sauce smells just plain horrible. As in "Kill me quick" horrible. As in, if I was offered a shot of gasoline and a shot of fish sauce I'd be sorely tempted to try my luck with the gasoline. But I said a quick prayer and into the pot went the fish sauce.

The palm sugar--which one can only imagine is sugar collected from palm trees--isn't as sweet as regular refined sugar and though you can substitute regular sugar, you would have to decrease the amount slightly. Instead of 1/2 cup palm sugar you'd use only 1/3 cup white or brown sugar but the palm sugar comes pressed into these little concrete discs and I used six of them for my double batch. It takes a while for them to dissolve, but dissolve they will--just be patient.

Pad Thai SauceOnce you have the three main ingredients in there you've got to be really brave--you've got to taste the sauce. I know, I know, it struck fear in my heart as well because it still reeks like yesterday's garbage (assuming you ate fish the night before) but you've got to do it. Think of it as taking one for the team or something. You don't need a huge spoonful, just a tiny nibble to test the balance of the sweet from the palm sugar, the sour from the tamarind and the salty from the fish sauce.

If you think it needs less salty or sweet, add more tamarind pulp, likewise if you want more sweet add a bit more sugar--it's up to you. I ended up adding another tablespoon of tamarind and a teaspoon of white sugar to mine. It doesn't really taste too bad, just not very pleasant and at that point I had to wonder how on earth I would actually serve it to guests--at least guests that I wanted to continue to count among my friends after the meal was over.

Start adding chili powder, a teaspoon at a time until you have enough to give you a pleasant kick. Let it simmer a little and try not to think of the smell because honestly? It still smells yucky. At this point in the endeavor I was seriously wondering if I had enough boxes of mac and cheese to feed everyone. Grace wandered by about this time and gave me the "What is that smell?" thing. I dared her to take a taste of the sauce and, not wanting to be rude (she's very polite) she tasted it. She made the kind of the face a baby makes when they try ice cream for the first time and yes, I had her worried. I told her that she'd just have to take it on faith that it would be good (as if I had any conviction myself).

Anyway, the sauce stores nicely in the refrigerator until you need it. Meanwhile, to prepare the noodles, let them soak in warm water for a few minutes until they're pliable, but not soft enough to eat. Drain them and set them out for the final step.

So what is the final step? Well when you're ready to cook everything up you do it in batches of 2 servings so set out all your ingredients in your workspace so they can be at room temperature and ready to go: noodles, oil, eggs, garlic, shrimp, bean sprouts, chopped green onions and the pad thai sauce. I hope you have a wok because you're going to need it.

Heat the wok until it starts to smoke slightly then add a couple tablespoons of oil which will immediately dance around the pan in a panic. Throw in two loosely packed cups of noodles and stir them around in the oil. This is the trickiest part of the whole thing because if you stop stirring the noodles will clump into a gelatinous mass unfit for human consumption--unless you're a teenage boy, they tend to eat anything I've noticed. Anyway, it may help if you have two spoons so that you can kind of pry the noodles apart as you stir them, this really helped me keep them from clumping. Also, you can also add a few tablespoons of water and that will lubricate things nicely and help keep the noodles from organizing against you.

Once they're soft and tender, which happens in just a minute or two, push them up onto the side of the wok where it's cool to wait their turn. Add another little bit of oil and break an egg into the pan, stirring rapidly until it's scrambled up in the oil. Add a little more oil if necessary and a tablespoon of minced garlic (I tend to be generous with my garlic) and stir it up. Add 1/2 cup of shrimp, 1/2 to 1 cup of bean sprouts, 1/4 cup of sauce and stir it all together until it's well mixed.

Push the noodles back into the middle and add a handful of green onions, mixing everything up until you start to smell it and think, "Hey, maybe Michelle was right--this stuff is starting to smell downright tasty!" At that point you know it's done and you can divide the batch between two plates and garnish them with lime slices.

Rinse out your wok, scraping the surface to remove any egg bits (but we're not talking perfectly clean here, just a little clean) and repeat the whole process from the point where you heat up the wok on the stove. Here's a clip of me whipping up a batch:

By the time I had made it through five batches of pad thai I was feeling pretty confident--I had the rhythm down and I was in The Zone. And how did it taste? Fabulous! And can I say that again? It was FABULOUS! In fact, I can count on one hand the times that everyone has liked a meal--where I didn't get even one complaint--and this one was well-received by everyone. The only person who didn't have seconds was Lillian because she stuffed herself with her first helping.

How can something that smelled so suspicious end up tasting so delicious? I don't know how the magic worked but I'm here to testify that it did its thing. Melissa suggested making the green onion pieces bigger--apparently she likes her pad thai with plenty of onion but that would have scared Andrew who cowers in fear when it comes to onions--and she also suggested using chicken or beef instead but I'll leave that for you to investigate on your own.

Bon appetit! Or rather bon appe-thai!


I'm entering this post in My Ice Cream Diary's contest. The theme is food experiences and the prize is a See's Candy gift certificate. Deadline? February 28th!


Congratulations to Jessica from Smyrna, Georgia for winning this week's Saturday giveaway and the plaque by A Simple Impression. Thanks to all who participated!

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Robin said...

I love Thai food - it's actually my go-to style when I don't feel like cooking. Once you get used to the new ingredients, you'll find you want to keep them on hand all the time so that you can throw together something interesting on a moment's notice. In fact, I just made a delicious tofu (what I had on hand, could have just as easily been chicken, pork or shrimp) and vegetable red curry with rice the other day and am looking forward to having the leftovers for lunch. Yum!

I've also got a formula-type recipe for my chicken in Thai style green curry sauce on my blog if you're interested.

I may have to make pad thai tonight though, you've got me in the mood :).

Marketing Mama said...

Wow - very impressive! I would have stopped at "fish sauce". Love your play by play and the video clip was cool, too!

Adventures In Babywearing said...

Pad Thai is my very favorite- but I always order it without the egg & fish sauce! I am impressed at your creation!


Tim Appleton (Applehead) said...

How long does it take go through that bucket o' garlic!?!

Patty W said...

Looks yummy! I think they use Tamarind to make Worcestshire sauce too.

I think I'd give the seed a little nice to make it germinate quicker..It will grow into a tree :)

Tina in Thailand said...

Oh my, I was laughing when I read this! Had to read it out loud to my family.
You are so right, fish sauce smells terrible, I think it smells like rotten feet, but it really is an essential ingredient.
I love Phad Thai, one of my favorite dishes.
Tamarind is a fruit, that unfortunately, does not look much better fresh than it does dried and smooshed into your vaccum pack. But it is delicious. They are in season now and very tasty.
Most Phad Thai here in Thailand will also come with tofu, even if shrimp or chicken or pork is added too. The kind that is really firm with a yellow rind.
So glad you stuck it out and were pleased with the final result.
Thanks for the laugh!

Patty W said...

Geez... I hate typos.... I didn't mean be "nice" to your seeds! I meant to "nick" them...make a little cut in them !

ok....back to our regularly scheduled programming!

Jacki said...

I do not think I would have had the patience for this! But I do like Thai food....very delicious!

Babystepper said...

Mexican candy is frequently tamarind flavored (tamarindo). Usually it includes chili powder too in some form. Very strange. I'd have to say I'm not a big tamarind fan, but that's partly because it looks rather like a large piece of poo when it's still all in the bumpy, brown pod thingy.

Rachel said...

Brave you!

I lived in Thailand for several months, and I can testify that most Thai recipes go that way - smells horrible to our American noses until the very last second. My family really doesn't like when I make Thai food for them, unless I make it when they aren't home and serve it to them later. :)

A tamarind is a kind of fruit. You can read about it here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tamarind

It's quite a versatile plant!

Anonymous said...

That looks delicious! I think I may have to go out for Thai food instead. If I put that much effort into it and then my picky family refused to eat it, I think I would go crazy. Thanks for making my mouth water. And good for you for trying new things and making it look so easy.

Jenna Consolo said...

Well, honestly, it still sounds a bit too adventurous for me, but you kept my attention the whole time with your descriptions. Usually food posts can go one of two ways, and yours definitely went UP.

Jen said...

That looks amazing! :) (I'll have to see if I can find a vegetarian version anywhere...)

sara l. said...

That looks SUPER yummy!

luvmy4sons said...

Wow! I will say it again, WOW! I was exhausted jsut reading it! You are amazing. I wish you could come over and be my personal chef. I eat mostly raw and all vegetables but I tire so of all the work! You obviosuly enjoy it. Let me know when you want to start! Amazing post!

Mean Mommy said...

Mmmm. I love Pad Thai! I didn't have a very good recipe before, and those silly store pre-boxed mixes just don't cut it. Thanks for making my day!

Lisa Milton said...

Sounds heavenly; thanks for the recipe.

Annikke said...

I love Thai food and especially really good Pad Thai, BUT I would never attempt to make it! You are so awesome. I admire you and your recipes! I am an ok cook, not a great one. Definitely not good enough to try to make Thai food!! :o)

An Ordinary Mom said...

The first time I had Pad Thai I was in love ... but there are definitely better versions out there than others.

WomensDaily said...

I absolutely adore Pad Thai. I have to pull myself away to try something different every time I go to a Thai restaurant.

My Ice Cream Diary said...

Wow, I am impressed. When I cook dishes like these my kitchen is a total disaster with bits of finely diced food flying every where, and everything is splattered with oil and sauce. I love pad Thai and you did another brilliant job of writing a tutorial that anyone could follow.

Oh, and tamarind, a type of date like fruit, is a sour flavor. If you absolutely can't find it you can substitute lemon juice.

Thanks for entering the contest =)

Childlife said...

This sounds fabulous, Michelle ! (Well... aside from smells reminiscent of yesterday's garbage...) We do gluten-free at our house and this sounds like it might be a really great fit for us. Thanks for breaking down the instructions so they aren't so intimidating :)

Scribbit said...

I don't know how the fish sauce is with gluten-free, sometimes you have to watch out for hidden stuff (like in soy sauce) but the rest should be just fine.

Sarah said...

Okay, you convinced me. I usually stay away from the Asian stuff because I have absolutely NONE of the ingredients, but this just looks so yummy. Or maybe it's because it's 2pm and I haven't eaten lunch yet. Must get off computer. And eat pad thai. :)

Shannon said...

Thai is a family favorite around here for sure! I am so impressed that you braved an ingredient list like that and for company no less! Nice work! I may have to give it a go myself!

AlaneM said...

Oh you made me laugh so hard - much needed & thank you VERY much. Sounds like a yummy recipe but not one I'd have the patience to do. Now if you could do it in a crock-pot...

Heather said...

Oh man, this post had me rolling on the floor! SO funny (and yet so informative!) - I bet you win the writing contest. I will definitely be trying this one - lots of great Asian markets here in Milpitas. :)

Lei said...

I always get the urge to try new recipes on unsuspecting folk. I mena really, what's a sens eof adventure if not used in the kitchen? Next time though I'll make it several times like you did to be sure it tastes as good as it possibly can!

SudsMuffin said...

When I was in Mexico (if you remember my 6 week stint I mentioned in your last blog post) I was served Tamarind juice. It was sour and sweet and red and o so very tasty! I loved it! They showed me a tamarind. It looks like a great big bean pod that you would get Lima beans out of. LOL

LOVED this blog post. Especially love the video where your hands and your face tell two different stories. The hands are sure and steady, the face, not so much.

My brother loves pad thai. I MUST give this recipe a try. Thanks!

jubilee said...

I'm not very much of a risk taker when it comes to food, but if I had a chance to try this I would. All of the effort would be totally lost on my family, so I doubt I'll be making this recipe anytime soon, but it was fun to read about!

Jubilee on Earth said...

Awesome! I love the description and appreciate the step-by-step instructions. I'm glad it worked out well for you. Cool! Are you going to try Indian next? LOL

Mel Avila Alarilla said...

Hi Michelle,
I was laughing in stitches when I was reading your post. It was something out of a Perry Mason novel. You have a way with words. Your description of your misadventure with Pad Thai was so picturesque and colorful that I could almost smell the fish sauce and the pressed tamarinds. But I must say that you are a born cook to be able to whip up an authentic Pad Thai in your very first try and served to your guests too. How audacious can you get. Thanks for the very entertaining post. God bless you and your loved ones always.

Loralee Choate said...

It was so fun to actually see you in action!!

I heart Thai food. It's one of my favorites. Try Chicken Satay sometime...It is always a HUGE hit and goes very well with the Pad Thai.

I also recommend squeezing some fresh lime juice on it and adding chopped peanuts. MMMMM....

page2 said...

I want to cook pad thai now! And cook it for guests! Too bad I have to drive two hours to a bigger city to find those ingredient. I haven't even been able to find sun-dried tomatoes here. That was fun watching you whip that stuff together.

J at www.jellyjules.com said...

Wow, does that sound good! I am terrible in that I rarely taste the food I'm cooking, and much is left to chance. I've tried to reform my negligent ways, but not too hard.

I always thought pad thai also had peanuts in it? But boy, you made this sound fun and yummy. Good luck winning the Sees! If I had known you liked it, I could have grabbed you some in the airport on my way up from California. ;)

Stacie.Make.Do. said...

Yum! I am impressed that you made it all from scratch. I cheat and use the box mix. Oh, and I put peanuts in mine (because that's what it says to do on the box).

Kim said...

I think it's great you decided to make something you had tried once and didn't care for because you had guests who liked it.

Isn't it amazing how there can be so many different ways to make one dish? Sounds like the recipe you found was far superior to the one you had the misfortune to eat before.

By the end of this post I was ready to go out and buy the ingredients and make this myself. Probably not really going to happen... but it sure sounds good!

Kim @ TheBitterBall

ames said...

I'm going to have to try out this recipe, I've made pahd thai before but with a very different version. This looks nice and simple! Good thing we're taking a trip to the asian grocer today, looks like I need to get some more stink-tastic fish sauce. If you're feeling brave, I've got a fantastic recipe for Thai chicken coconut milk soup, Tom Kha Gai...but then you also need to find galangal and lemongrass.

Fish sauce. So nasty smelling, but so essential to Thai food! And is that your rice china? I *love* it!

Anonymous said...

I absolutely adore Pad Thai.