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Pad Thai: Noodles of National Pride

One of the most commonly associated dishes with Thailand has to be the one that has the word ‘Thai’ in the name. Pad Thai, a famous stir-fry noodle dish, is simple on the surface but colored in its history. Before we begin to get into the juicy details of Pad Thai’s origins, let’s first describe this Thai street food icon. 

Pad Thai isn’t Pad Thai without rice noodles. The noodles are flat shaped rather than round and have a chewy and translucent quality to them. In a wok, the rice noodles are stir-fried with egg, bits of firm tofu, tamarind juice, fish sauce, shrimp, garlic, palm sugar, and some starch. More flavors and textures are offered on the side: lime wedges, chili flakes, crushed peanuts, bean sprouts and chives, traditionally. The dish bears semblance with Chinese cuisine but has an unmistakable seal of Thainess in taste. So how did Pad Thai become one of the most recognizable dishes of Thailand cuisine?

Pad Thai as a Tool of Unification

It dates back to the 1930s, when Thailand had its 150-year absolute monarchy system overthrown and replaced by military leader Plaek Phibunsongkhram. Recognizing the need for cultural unification and a sense of national pride, the new government issued several mandates to promote Thainess but unfortunately, these campaigns often came at the expense of the Chinese immigrant population. One of the government’s tactics for unification took the form of food. Rice noodles from China were a solution to Thailand’s rice shortages during the World War II era. The government realized that they could effectively feed their population during wartime by mixing Chinese rice noodles with a few other ingredients. They essentially invented a simple stir-fry dish but deliberately branded it boldly as Thai. 

Phibunsongkhram’s government distributed the recipe to citizens and also urged Thai vendors to make and sell the dishes throughout the provinces. In a speech, Phibunsongkhram was famously quoted saying that Thais should consume “noodles for lunch”. Over time, the government even tried to make the dish “increasingly Thai" by adding more endemic ingredients, including Thai-made rice noodles known as Chantaboon rice noodles. To the government’s credit, Pad Thai did evolve to become more filling, nutritious, and economical with the introduction of more locally available ingredients like shrimp, tofu, and bean sprouts. The staple also continued to spread throughout the country past Phibunsongkhram’s administration. 

Pad Thai Today

No doubt the early marketing efforts of Pad Thai have had an effect on its popularity, domestically and globally. Though Pad Thai was somewhat of a snub on Thailand’s Chinese immigrants back in the day, today some of the best Pad Thai in central Thailand is found in Bangkok’s Chinatown, ironically. On top of that, Pad Thai is no longer just economical wartime fare or even merely street food. You can find Pad Thai in five star hotels and elevated versions in fine dining restaurants as well. (Even Gordon Ramsay has tried his hand at the Thai dish.) From its days as a simple state-sanctioned recipe, Pad Thai has been adapted in so many ways since. For instance, some chefs will substitute the shrimp for other proteins. The dish can be made vegan-friendly with plant-based substitutions for the fish sauce and shrimp, and the omission of egg. But like I said in the beginning, Pad Thai isn’t Pad Thai without the rice noodles. And what makes a good Pad Thai, in my opinion, is an abundance yet balance of flavors and one good stir-fry.