Pad Thai

From Arne Adolfsen on Facebook, a link to a piece by food writer Alexandra Greeley in Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture: “Finding Pad Thai”, which begins:

For many westerners, pad Thai—or, more accurately, kway teow pad Thai (stir-fried rice noodles Thai-style)—symbolizes Thai cooking, thanks in large part to the Thai government’s ongoing efforts to introduce the country’s food to the rest of the world. The campaign has been resoundingly successful…

If Westerners believe that pad Thai symbolizes Thai cooking, many Thais agree [and judge Thai restaurants around the world by this dish] … [But in Thailand itself] many restaurants choose not to compete with the street-food vendors, who make and serve only pad Thai all day long and thus have perfected the recipe.

Pad Thai is really nothing more than a regular noodle dish, one that is not even native to Thailand. Its full name, kway teow pad Thai, hints at its possible Chinese origins; kway teow, in Chinese, refers to rice noodles. It is likely that some early version of the dish came to Thailand with settlers crossing from southern China, who brought their own recipe for fried rice noodles.

… Prime Minister Pibulsonggram [Phibunsongkhram in Wikipedia, Phibunsonkhram in OED3; known as Phibun] … is universally credited with having popularized today’s pad Thai recipe by codifying, and perhaps even creating, it.

On the one hand, Greeley says that Pad Thai is “not even native to Thailand”, but on the other, she recognizes that today’s recipe is a specifically Thai creation. There’s no real contradiction here: most dishes have some history taking them back (usually in somewhat different, even rudimentary, form) to places and cultures other than the one they’re now associated with.

From the Gastronomica piece, a photo (by Lawrence Daks) of Nongkran Daks preparing Pad Thai:

From OED3 (Dec. 2005):

< Thai phàtthai < phàt stir-fried food + thai Thai.

The dish was originally devised to replace Chinese recipes for nationalistic reasons during the regime of Luang Phibunsonkhram (1938-44), but the name now has no political connotations.

A Thai dish of stir-fried rice noodles mixed with shrimp, peanuts, and other ingredients. [first cite in English from 1978]

An more elaborated account from Wikipedia, which hints at the enormous variability in the dish:

Pad Thai or Phat Thai (… [pʰàt tʰāj], “fried Thai style”) is a dish of stir-fried rice noodles with eggs, fish sauce …, tamarind juice, red chilli pepper, plus any combination of bean sprouts, shrimp, chicken, or tofu, garnished with crushed peanuts, coriander and lime, the juice of which can be added along with Thai condiments (crushed peanuts, garlic, chives, pickled turnip, coriander, lime, spicy chili oil, chili powder, vinegar, fish sauce, sugar). It is usually served with scallions and pieces of raw banana flower.

(The rice noodles are a constant.)

… it was first made popular as a national dish by Luang Phibunsongkhram when he was prime minister during the 1930s and 1940s, partly as an element of his campaign for Thai nationalism and centralization, and partly for a campaign to reduce rice consumption in Thailand. The Thai economy at this time was heavily dependent on rice exports; Phibunsongkhram hoped to increase the amount available for export by launching a campaign to educate the underprivileged in the production of rice noodles, as well as in the preparation of these noodles with other ingredients to sell in small cafes and from street carts. Nowadays Pad Thai has become a widespread staple food and is one of Thailand’s national dishes.

Greeley captures the attractions of the dish, in its

balance of flavors and textures—the three primary Thai flavors of salty, sour, and sweet, and a fourth, spicy, added to taste in the form of chilies. The bean sprouts and peanuts add a desirable, though subtle, crunch, a foil for the soft rice noodles and chewy prawns.

As for Phibun’s motives in championing Pad Thai, Greeley quotes nutritional anthropologist Penny Esterick, in her book Materializing Thailand:

[p]art of Phibun’s nation-building strategy was to develop ‘Thai-ness’ and impose a ‘Thai Great Tradition’ to demonstrate the strength and unity of the Thai nation. His series of decrees from 1939–1942 suggested what could be done to strengthen the Thai economy, to instill national image and pride—and to improve the national diet. Popularizing a noodle dish was one means to that end.

Greeley continues:

By adding bean sprouts, onions, peanuts, eggs, and meats to the noodles, the dish could dramatically improve the Thai diet and shift people away from the more traditional dietary staples of rice with nam prik (chili paste), leaves, and salt, Van Esterik believes.

… To help popularize the new noodle dish, the government supplied people with a basic recipe for pad Thai, then encouraged vendors to make use of wheeled noodle carts—like mobile cook stalls equipped with a heat source and compartments to hold ingredients and cooking utensils—to sell the dish on Bangkok’s streets.

The dish then spread to rural areas.

And, like other national or regional dishes — pizza and submarine sandwiches in the U.S., gumbo in New Orleans, posole in the American Southwest, and so on — a forest of variant preparations quickly grew.

One Response to “Pad Thai”

  1. Eric Schiller Says:

    One of the few good meals my doctors will allow me to eat. It is what I’m making for dinner tonight!

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