A Quest For Perfect Pad Thai


EVENT: Weekly Meeting with Megumi (Our Intern)
VENUE: Phoebe’s Apartment, Flatiron
TYPE: Casual Business Lunch
MENU: Vegetarian Pad Thai

When I was 15, I decided I wanted to spend my summer in Thailand. I’m not sure where I got this idea in my head, and neither did my parents. But I’m pretty sure they were part of the reason to go: I knew my dad wouldn’t be happy with the idea of me going so far away, and thus, the trip would allow me to exercise my excellent litigation skills that had gotten me out of multiple groundings, and with a later curfew instead of punishment for my having not abided by the original one. Eventually, I got my way.

The six-week trip was an amazing experience—my first time to Asia, my first time strolling in a 35-acre market, and my first time being served a main course of fried cockroaches for dinner. We were given the freedom to wander the cities alone, but the community service program had strict rules: no drinking, no drugs, no tattoos. I abided by them all, and still managed to get into trouble; no one protected or prohibited me from consuming too much Pad Thai. And this began my ten-year strong addiction to rice noodles.

Classic Chicken and Broccoli might not actually exist in China, but Pad Thai is an authentic dish, as ubiquitous in Thailand as hamburgers are in the US. We ate it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner–at gas stations, from street vendors, and in the fanciest of Bangkok restaurants. And like our hot dog or hamburger, the Pad Thai was served plain, with all of the requisite condiments on the table. Back in the States, the Pad Thai was a different story. And the difference was the sugar.

In the months that followed my return, I went on a quest for traditional Pad Thai, for a dish that tasted like the one I ate over fifty times during my summer vacation. But the American versions were always too sweet, and I found myself having to ask for the condiments—lime wedges, fish sauce, chili paste—to balance the flavors. (Cara was present for many of these excursions, and now considers asking for the same accoutrements when she goes out for Thai food.) The perfect Pad Thai didn’t exist in New York. So I started making it at home.

I asked my parents for a wok for Hanukkah and put to use the skills I learned in my first ever cooking class in Chang Mai. The Baan Thai Home Cooking School had sent us home with a hand-bound book of classic recipes, and I began making Pad Thai and Chicken with Cashew Nuts for myself when my mom wasn’t home to cook. At the time, Pad Thai was the only home-cooked dish that was my own—the only recipe I hadn’t inherited from my family, and one of the only things I made when I was left alone.

Later, in college, I ended up finding my near-perfect restaurant Pad Thai. I hadn’t realized that I needed to go to Providence Rhode Island to find it. The wok hadn’t made it to college with me, or to my first apartment, and though you don’t really need one, that meant that I stopped cooking Pad Thai altogether. That is, until a few weeks ago.

On Cara’s urging, I dug up my old Baan Thai cookbook, and found the Pad Thai recipe dog-eared, with splatters of oil dotting the page. I made it for our weekly meeting, and our first with our new intern, Megumi. We chatted as I soaked the rice noodles, chopped up shallot and scallions, and began stir-frying them in oil. Twenty minutes later we sat down to lunch at the coffee table, which was covered in condiment bowls. To my surprise and pleasure, it was the first time since high school that I needed to add a teaspoon of sugar, my favorite of all the condiments.

From my kitchen, where the perfect Pad Thai belongs to its creator, to yours,



Vegetarian Pad Thai
Makes 2 servings

½ pound rice noodles
3 tablespoons oil
1 shallot, sliced
2 scallions, sliced (white and green parts divided)
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 egg, beaten
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon fish sauce
2 tablespoons oyster sauce


¼ cup beansprouts
¼ cup ground peanuts
1 lime, cut into wedges
Siracha or red chili paste

Cilantro leaves (optional)
Soak the rice noodles in warm water for 20 minutes. Drain and set aside.

In a large wok or non-stick skillet, heat the oil over a medium-high flame. Add the shallot and white scallions and saute until beginning to brown, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until golden, about 1 minute. Pour in the egg and quickly scramble. Toss together with the noodles, sugar, green scallions, fish and oyster sauces until well mixed. Continue to stir fry until the noodles are cooked through and slightly charred, about 3 more minutes.

Top with bean sprouts, ground peanuts, cilantro leaves, and a lime wedge. Serve alongside the garnishes.

  • http://justaonegirlrevolution.com mindy

    For what it’s worth, most vegetarians won’t consider this to be truly veg-friendly because of the fish and oyster sauce.

    • abby

      You can make a vegetarian fish sauce substitute and you can buy vegetarian oyster sauce.

    • abby

      You can make a vegetarian fish sauce substitute and you can buy vegetarian oyster sauce.

  • Lizthechef

    My quest for the perfect pad thai has ended, thankfully, having discovered your recipe 😉 Thanks for a winner!

  • http://twitter.com/LaraDietrich Lara Dietrich

    Thanks for the post! I was looking for a quick main dish to whip up after work for a girl’s night in, and this Pad Thai was amazing! Everyone went in for seconds :-)

  • http://feastonthecheap.net Feastonthecheap

    Will have to make this for my husband – he’s a Pad Thai connoisseur. And so happy to stumble upon your site (pun intended), I’m a quarter-life cook myself and co-host a food blog with my mom, a mid-life caterer! I’m bookmarking you 😉

  • RAK

    Our northern Thailand (Chaing Mai) recipe uses a sauce made with tamarind flavor (juice or whatever) instead of oyster sauce, as in: 3 tbs sugar, 3 tbs fish sauce, 1 tbs soy sauce and 2 tbs tamarind juice. I found some tamarind concentrate in Thai town here in LA and simply added water. The Taste from Heaven vegetarian restaurant’s (also in Chaing Mai) pad thai recipe is more complex and uses (instead of fish sauce) tamarind sauce, sweet radish, mushroom powder, chili sauce, seasoning sauce (a flavored soy sauce?) and water.

  • courtney!

    NOM NOM NOM!!! just made this last night with my boyfriend and we both went nuts-o for it. i couldn’t believe how easy it was. thanks!

  • Meaty

    I am from Providence, and I must know what restaurant you had perfect pad thai in!

    • http://www.biggirlssmallkitchen.com/ BGSK

      Sawadee on Hope Street!!! Best Pad Thai I’ve had in this country hands down!
      The Som Tum salad is great too.

  • http://www.facebook.com/midtownbrown Ashley Levanway Brown

    Really delicious and so easy once I had the ingredients assembled! Please consider removing the “vegetarian” label on the title, as fish and oyster sauce are not vegetarian. 

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  • ELT2020

    If I don’t have oyster or fish sauce, is my pad thai doomed?  Or will not adding these two ingredients not affect the flavor of the dish that much?

    • http://www.biggirlssmallkitchen.com/ BGSK

      ELT–you should definitely use these two condiments. They account for a lot of the flavor of the dish. Try the asian aisle of your super market! xo Phoebe

  • http://www.wecookinpittsburgh.com Dan

    Just tried this recipe tonight… delicious! My noodles did turn out a bit dry. Is there any way to make them more saucy without overpowering with more fish/oyster sauce? Maybe chicken or veggie broth?

    • http://www.biggirlssmallkitchen.com/ BGSK

      Hi Dan–so thrilled it worked out!! were they dry and stiff? there’s a chance you might not have soaked them long enough. Some of the US brands even recommend boiling them for a little while instead of soaking. Depends on what it said on your box. Either way, stock or even good old H2O would work!

  • http://www.jazzinthekitchen.wordpress.com/ Leigh

    I made this for a couple of friends, and it was delicious!  So good in fact, that I ended up making it again the very next night for myself.  Thanks for a great and easy recipe :)

  • Claire

    Could call it “Vegetable Pad Thai”. (A close friend picks this when we go out, but is allergic to all seafood and all poultry, so I assume our local restaurant doesn’t use fish sauce).

    I’m not allergic, so will have to try this.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/dreamlandia Stacy Renee

    how is this vegetarian if it has fish and oyster sauce?

    • http://www.biggirlssmallkitchen.com/ BGSK

      A lot of vegetarians make exception for those. But you can also follow Bittman’s instructions for making vegetarian “fish” and “oyster” sauce from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.

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  • Anne @ Have a Cookie!

    Thank you for a Pad Thai recipe that serves just 2 people!  I live alone and love Pad Thai but hate to order take-out because 1) it’s too much food for me and 2) after a few days of eating leftovers, it’s not that good!  I can’t wait to try this!

    • http://www.biggirlssmallkitchen.com/ BGSK

      You are oh so welcome!

  • Liz Biz

    Sounds great, I too have been searching for a Pad Thai recipe that matches the many I ate in Thailand! Question though, what oil do you use and is it palm sugar or regular granulated white sugar?

    • http://www.biggirlssmallkitchen.com/ BGSK

      We use regular granulated sugar, but if you have palm on hand, I’m sure it’s even better. As for oil: normally safflower. Any neutral oil (peanut, canola) will work.

      • Liz Biz

        I’m in England and we don’t have any of those oils in the supermarkets! I’ll try sunflower oil I think as that’s fairly neutral. Many thanks, am loving your site. Will definitely try this recipe!

        • yaraj

          groundnut oil is same as peanut oil

  • http://twitter.com/saltshul sami ariel

    sounds great–i’ve been searching for a great pad thai recipe except that i’m allergic to seafood. any suggestions for substitutions?

  • Kelly

    Hi, is there any way we can make it w/o the oyster and fish sauce?

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  • BrendaS78

    Thank you so much for this A-MAZING recipe. To make it a little bit more friendly for my Weight Watcher points for the day, I cut back on the oil a bit. I had a package of broccoli, carrots, and water chestnuts in the freezer that I decided to add on to bulk it up a bit. So, it didn’t turn out to be as traditional, but delish none the less. did the prep ahead of time, so that made that part easy. Biggest challenge….getting the oyster sauce out of the bottle.

  • Marium

    So where in Providence Rhode island did you have the perfect pad thai?

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  • S

    This doesn’t have tamarind or cilantro.. You haven’t searched very hard for the perfect recipe. At least use brown sugar.

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