I’ve never met a noodle I didn’t like, but the rice noodles in pad thai I love the most.
First, there’s that texture: springy but pliable, and soft but not mushy. Then, the sauce that coats them: salty, sour and sweet. The combination is hard to top.
For those reasons and more, pad thai is a popular takeout staple. But having made this recipe several times, I can tell you that — surprise! — there is no magical power imparted by the plastic carryout container. Yes, you can make pad thai that tastes exactly like what you’d get from a restaurant. (Pad thai only came into being as a Thai national dish in the 1930s, even though it shares a lot in common with Chinese cuisine. It remains more of a street food than a home-cooked staple there.)
For a great recipe, I turned to chef-owner Nongkran Daks of Thai Basil in Chantilly, right near Washington Dulles International Airport. Daks rode her pad thai recipe to fame in 2009, when she beat chef and TV host Bobby Flay in a battle on his good-natured “Throwdown” series.
Daks, a native of Thailand, has stayed true to the spirit of the original, using such ingredients as dried shrimp, preserved radish and palm sugar. We also added tiny matchsticks of bright-red pressed tofu, which is also typical.
All those will probably require a trip to an Asian market or an online purchase. If the specialty Asian ingredients are hard to come by, fear not. We tested the recipe without them, substituting brown sugar for the palm sugar, too. Although the flavor wasn’t quite as well-rounded in savory depth, it was still good, and probably loads better than a lot of what you find in to-go boxes.
I do, however, suggest you spring for tamarind concentrate, or 3 tablespoons of tamarind pulp soaked in warm water for 20 minutes and then strained. (Tamarind also is available at Indian markets.) The tamarind not only lends the dish its appealing color, but also its unmistakable tart and sweet base.
Shrimp, eggs, bean sprouts and roasted peanuts are all classic ingredients that fill out the dish in flavor and heft. If your friends and family are anything like my co-workers, you’ll be fighting them off for every last bite.