My July food column as it appeared in Satellite Magazine
This month we journey across the Pacific, leaving Peru and landing in Thailand to enjoy what is arguably the country’s most popular dish in the west, Pad Thai noodles. Pad Thai noodles is a traditional, single-pot dish with as many variations as there are people cooking it (one variant I found even called for ketchup). The secret is all in the sauce, so take some time and adapt it to your tastes. Again, don’t be afraid to experiment! You’ll probably want to go to one of the many local Asian markets in town for the tamarind sauce, but the rest of the ingredients should be available at the supermarket.
One other thing to remember: Asian cooking is often cooked fast and hot. The secret to being successful lies in the prep work. Once you get started, there’s rarely any downtime, so you can’t chop the scallions you forgot and you certainly can’t pop out to the store to pick up a last ingredient.
Ingredients (serves 2)
- 1 Package of wide rice noodles (might be labeled as pad Thai noodles)
- ½ block of extra-firm tofu
- 3 tablespoons peanut oil (or other low-flavor, high-heat-point oil)
- 2 tablespoons tamarind sauce
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 large egg, beaten
- 1 cup chopped scallions (approximately three scallions, chopped on a bias—save a couple more from the bunch for garnish and crunch)
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 cup bean sprouts (reserve some extra for garnish)
- ½ cup chopped peanuts
- 1 red chile, minced (you can substitute red pepper flakes)
- 1 lime, cut into wedges
- Soy sauce
To begin, set the noodles in a large bowl and cover them with hot (not boiling) water. Allow them to soak for about 25 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent the noodles from sticking. While they soak, chop the peanuts (I like using the chef’s knife, but you could easily chop them using a clean coffee grinder or place them in a zip-top bag and smack them with a wooden spoon or mallet). You’ll also want to combine the fish sauce, tamarind sauce and sugar, chop the scallions, and prepare the tofu in pieces about the size of French fries. Heat a wok--if you don’t have a wok, you should. If you still don’t have a wok, you can certainly get away with using a skillet. One with slightly sloping sides will work best for Asian cooking. Add a tablespoon of peanut oil to your wok and place it over high heat. When the oil begins to shimmer in the pan (it’ll look like it’s skimming across the metal if you move the wok), add the tofu and several dashes of the soy sauce. Sear the tofu for about 30 seconds on each side, or just stir fry for about four minutes total. Searing will give the tofu a nice texture, however, so I would recommend letting it sit in the pan for at least a little bit. When the tofu is done, take it off the heat, drain it, and set it aside.
When the noodles have finished soaking, drain them and take a moment to get ready. The ingredients will come together very quickly, so you’ll need to work fast. Dinner will be ready about five minutes after the noodles go in. Heat the wok back up to high, add some additional oil if needed, and toss in the garlic and scallions. Let them cook about a minute, then add the egg.
Allow the egg to cook for about 10 seconds and scramble it. Then add the noodles and combined sauce. Toss everything together until all the noodles are colored with the sauce and ass the peanuts and bean sprouts. Keep the wok moving! Let these heat through for about 30 seconds to a minute. Finally, add the tofu, let everything heat through again, and transfer the whole lot to a giant serving dish. Garnish with the extra chopped scallions and bean sprouts, and serve with lime wedges and the minced chile.
Thailand has a rich culinary history, and its cuisine is marked by distinct regional differences. However, Thai food is united by a blend of flavors--savory, sweet, salty, and sour--wrapped in varying levels of heat. The important thing is balance and taste, so feel free to add ingredients as you see fit. Pad Thai noodles are well suited for shrimp, chicken or pork. Just remember to taste, taste, taste!