Only 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:
1/2 cup palm sugar
1/2 cup fish sauce
1/2 cup tamarind pulp
2 teaspoons Thai chili powder
1 package rice stick noodles
1/2 pound baby shrimp
1/2 cup chopped green onions
3 cups bean sprouts
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!
So 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.
I 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?"
Anyway, 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.
Once 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!
Technorati tags: Phad Thai, noodles, cooking