Before moving to Chicago 11 years ago, I had never tried Thai food. I know. I get a big fat F for claiming to be a foodie. I grew up in the suburbs of St. Louis where every strip mall had a Chinese buffet. And even though my family’s Vietnamese, we owned two Chinese restaurants ourselves.
I remember when the first Thai restaurant opened up in my neighborhood in West County. But the business closed its doors after less than a year of being open, before I even got a chance to try it. According to my mom, it was the generous spices in Thai dishes that didn’t sit well with diners in the area. Back in those days, I was too busy gorging on Taco Bell and Steak and Shake to care about exploring my culinary options.
It wasn’t until my roommate in college introduced me to Pad Thai for the first time, that I realized what I had been missing out all those years. My mother makes a killer beef pho noodle soup, so I’ve had my fair share of rice noodles growing up. But for me, Pad Thai was totally and uniquely different. The combination of the salty, sweet flavors of fish sauce and crushed peanuts, tossed in with sticky rice noodles, transported my palate to another planet.
Pad Thai roots
In Thailand, Pad Thai is considered fast food. It is best served on the street by vendors with noodle carts or eaten at inexpensive sidewalk eateries. Pad Thai literally means “Thai-style stir-fried noodles.” Chinese immigrants were actually the first to introduce rice noodles to Southeast Asia; however, the different styles of preparing rice noodles have evolved with its introduction into Thai culinary culture.
Depending on the region of Thailand you’re in (or the cook you get), Pad Thai is prepared differently than in the United States. Some noodle shops in Thailand prefer to use a sweetened black soy sauce with crushed red peppers and sugar to create their Pad Thai masterpieces. But no matter which region you order Pad Thai, the dish will always consist of four main flavor combinations: spicy, sour, sweet and salty.
Food for thought
What secret ingredient do some Asian restaurants in the states add to their Pad Thai recipe?
a. Soy Sauce
c. Cayenne Pepper
Did you guess ketchup? The tomato ketchup gives the rice noodles a reddish coloring and helps tame the salty fish sauce flavor that some Western taste buds are not accustomed to. While my experience with Thai food expands beyond Pad Thai these days, this savory noodle dish will always hold a special place on my palate.
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