Pad Thai: From Foreigner-cum-resident to the Thai Roots

Veena Thoopkajae




The fried noodle dish pad thai is known the world over and is more often than not the first Thai meal foreigners will sample, both at home and when they visit Thailand, where it is a staple of Bangkok’s colorful street food scene.

Pad thai represents a blend of three flavors — salty, sweet, and sour — which are the fundamentals of Thai cuisine, yet individually, are never allowed to dominate. More importantly, perhaps, this tasty noodle dish proves that not all Thai dishes are spicy.

Unlike most noodle dishes, pad thai, once on the plate, requires no seasoning though some like it with a squeeze of lime. It is far from a traditional dish having been created with simplicity in mind as recently as the last century.

Pad thai being stir-fried in a wok.

Kuai tiao or rice noodles came with overseas Chinese Hokkien or Teochew, who fled from war and famine in China to settle in the Kingdom of Thailand. They brought with them rice noodles that later became a popular staple food for the commoners. As such, Thais adopted rice noodles as one of their staple foods and created the dish that has been known as one of the signature Thai tastes. Initially an addition to the kuai tiao category, it was at first called kuai tiao pad thai or “pad thai noodles” but was later shortened to just pad thai.

Pad thai was created in the 1930s during Plaek Phibunsongkhram’s administration, and there are two popular stories as to its origins. In the first, it is said that Prime Minister Plaek created this dish as part of his campaign to build Thai nationalism from a Chinese dish. The other story points to a rice shortage caused by floods and World War II prompting the government to promote noodles to reduce domestic rice consumption. Either way, it certainly helped create a Thai identity for pad thai

No matter which of the stories is true, the invention of this tasty noodle dish reflects the brilliance of the Thai culinary skills in creating new dishes by adapting “foreign” dishes and adding local ingredients with the best Thai tastes or sam rot (“three flavors”). Certainly, the cooking style of stir-frying with oil is Chinese, and most historians give credit to the Chinese for the invention of noodles. Nevertheless, pad thai waves the Thai flag with its name — the word pad simply means “fried.”

Traditionally, Thai cooks didn’t fry with oil during the Sukhothai, Ayutthaya and early Rattanakosin periods. Stir-frying in a wok arrived in the Kingdom with Chinese immigrants. It’s likely then that pad thai is one of the earliest national dishes cooked by stir-frying.

Pad thai also arrived in the era when eating out was becoming increasingly common and street food was in its infancy. In the old days, Thais mostly ate at home and cooking was a big deal for every household. Eating out back then meant dining at someone else’s home. 

Pad thai is a street food dish, but it is also served in luxury restaurants, meaning the venue will influence the price. For example, a dish from a street vendor will probably cost THB40-50 (approx. US$1.30) while an air-conditioned restaurant will likely charge THB100 or more. One well-known eatery prepares it with a large freshwater prawn, so the price goes up to several hundred Thai baht.

Four spoons holding the various ingredients for shrimp pad thai.

Why is pad thai such a big hit?

Assuming that pad thai was created as a solution to a rice shortage, it follows that the dish was originally intended as a cheap and convenient meal, and indeed it remains so today. Although it is not the most popular dish among the locals, it can always be found at most food outlets or stalls.

Pad thai is also easy to find overseas.  A good introduction to Thai cuisine, thanks to its mild taste, the dish also helps Thai people to feel at home when they are abroad. Nowadays, ready-to-cook pad thai is also available in leading supermarkets in the world’s major cities including London, Paris, Tokyo and New York. In 2011, pad thai was listed at No. 5 on a list of the “World’s 50 most delicious foods” readers’ poll compiled by CNN Go.

Crowds waiting outside a famous pad thai restaurant.
Pad Thai Thip Samai, Bangkok

Much of its appeal lies in its “secret” sauce, which gets its sweetness from palm sugar and its acidity from tamarind. Other ingredients include chopped pickled radish, sliced tofu, chopped roasted peanut, small dried shrimps, duck egg, bean sprout, chives and, of course, the noodles called sen lek. For upmarket pad thai, fresh prawn and big tiger prawn are used instead of dried prawns. Originally, pad thai did not contain pork, but nowadays any meat can be included. It also makes a great tasting vegan or vegetarian dish.

The dish is served with fresh vegetables; such as, banana blossom, bean sprouts and Gotu Kola (bai bua bok) that bring a refreshing and crunchy texture. The best rice noodles to use in pad thai are sen chan named after Chanthaburi province.

A pad thai dish served on a round, wooden plate.

Pad thai has evolved through time. Some restaurants wrap the fried noodles in a thin crepe-like layer of egg and call it pad thai ho kai. Another, more recent adaptation is wonton pad thai, which is popular among the young people.

However you eat it, you can be sure of a satisfying meal every time.


Veena Thoopkajae

Related Posts