In last week’s column, we looked at the long history of fried rice, born of a Chinese culture that had limited proteins and vegetables but a seemingly endless supply of rice. The recipe – little more than a flexible idea, really – spread throughout Asia by way of conquest, trade or any combination thereof.
This week we explore the much shorter history of what happened when the people of Thailand, starting with one man in particular, discovered that their seemingly endless supply of rice, well, wasn’t.
“Noodle is your lunch.”
In our country, we’re used to slogans, mottos and other consumer persuasions coming from the private sector. If nothing else, phrases like “Soup is good food’ are understood as pure profit motive, not national identity. But that’s exactly how pad Thai was born in Thailand, in the early 1940s, as imperial Japan was conquering so much of Asia.
There are many who believe some version of stir-fried noodles entered Thailand with Chinese immigrants as early as the 1700s, along with the technique of stir-frying, the use of soy sauce and a general affection for foods that are hot, salty and sweet. Still, there’s undeniable evidence that Thais subsisted on rice into the early years of World War II – when a combination of a bad harvest and flooding put the country’s rice stores at risk.
The same prime minister (some say dictator) who mandated so many things, including hours of sleep and exercise, not to mention changing the country’s name from Siam to Thailand, responded to the crisis with an extraordinary order. Thais were to eat not rice but noodles – yes, the slogan “Noodle is your lunch” appeared on billboards, the sides of buses and just about everywhere else – all under the guise of Thai patriotism.
Mission accomplished. A country with many Chinese immigrants and much Chinese influence came to think of itself as specifically, proudly Thai. Though it has gone by different names since its invention, pad Thai is the name that struck. It translates, literally, as Fried Thai, though of course no Thais are fried in the making of pad Thai. It’s the rice noodles that are fried, in a style that is unmistakably Thai.
One of the ironies of this saga is that it took restaurants in Thailand a long time to jump on the pad Thai bandwagon. The dish (as its slogan association with lunch makes clear) was never considered fine dining. It was something made quickly at home using whatever meat, seafood or vegetables were lying around.
As a substitute for home in the quick and cheap dining department, Thailand’s carnival of street vendors did and do a fine job of making pad Thai. It’s a dish made on the run, usually to be enjoyed on the run.
When Thailand became a draw for Western tourists beginning in the 1970s – after many GIs had discovered its beauty during R&R trips away from combat in neighboring Vietnam – just about all of them asked for pad Thai in restaurants. And it wasn’t on the menu, anywhere. It only took a few managers pointing down the street to some food stall, however, for restaurants to wake up and, you know, smell the pad Thai.
DR. FOO’S SHRIMP PAD THAI
This street food classic from Thailand has become an international sensation, arguably the national dish of Thailand. Thanks to tamarind and other exotic ingredients initially sold only in specialty stores or ethnic markets, flavors like this were hard for most of us to replicate at home. Now, with a bold assist from Dr. Foo, it’s as easy as street foods have to be.
1 (1-pound) package uncooked rice noodles
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup broccoli florets
1 cup sliced carrots
½ cup sliced celery or bok choy
½ cup sliced red bell peppers
½ cup sliced onions
¼ cup sliced water chestnuts
¼ cup bamboo shoots
1 teaspoon sriracha hot sauce (optional)
1 pound peeled and deveined small-medium shrimp
3-4 tablespoons lime juice
Chopped green onions
Chopped cilantro leaves
Cook the noodles in water according to package directions and drain. In a large wok or skillet, scramble the eggs in about half the olive oil and transfer them to a bowl. Add the rest of the oil to the wok and stir-fry the broccoli, carrots, celery, red bell peppers, onions, water chestnuts and bamboo shoots until they start to caramelize. Stir in the sriracha, if using. Stir in the shrimp and cook just until turning pink, 4-5 minutes. Mix shrimp with vegetables. Add the cooked rice noodles. Stir in the Dr. Foo’s sauce, lime juice and scrambled eggs until thoroughly incorporated. Serve hot with a sprinkle of green onions and cilantro. Serves 8.