A Quest For Perfect Pad Thai
EVENT: Weekly Meeting with Megumi (Our Intern)
VENUE: Phoebe’s Apartment, Flatiron
PARTY SIZE: 3
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,
Phoebe, THE QUARTER-LIFE COOK
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.