Something that the rest of the country may not know about the Pacific Northwest is just how abundant Thai food is here. I am not sure why, but the population here has embraced the flavors of southeast Asia with gusto. Even in my medium sized city, I can choose from about 12 different Thai restaurants that are within 10 miles of my house…and I don’t live in town. With so many options to choose from, the quality of food that these establishments kick out is usually pretty good since competition is a bit stiff. One item that is always on the menu is some variant of Pad Thai.
I am really not clear why people here developed such a fever for Thai food; maybe it’s the dismal weather. I do have a vague recollection of Thai food becoming common place some time in the late 1980’s. I do know that pad thai was a staple food for me in college, as it was very cheap and highly available in Seattle. And honestly, there is a lot to love about pad thai. The fried rice noodles are satisfying, filling, and have a delightful sweet and sour flavor. The chili and fish sauce accent both the sauce in which the noodles are cooked and the stir-fried ingredients in the dish. And what a great variety of ingredients there are; you typically get your choice of meat (shrimp, chicken, pork, beef) to go with the array of vegetables and tofu that the cook selected.
It wasn’t long before I learned to cook it myself in order to save some cash and, over the years, I have developed some preferences with respect to how to make the sauce, how to cook the dish, and some opinions about what ingredients are vital. Keep in mind that the recipe below is just one way of doing it; sort of a guide if you don’t cook pad thai. If this is something you cook regularly, you will quickly adjust to suit your own tastes.
In my opinion, it is pretty hard to talk about pad thai in the Pacifc Northwest without addressing its stalwart companion, chicken sateh. Shown above, sateh is simply grilled or broiled meat that has been first marinaded in coconut milk and a particular set of spices. It is fragrant, light, and generally lovely. In other areas of the country, I have encountered pork sateh and beef sataeh, but around here chicken seems to be the most common. It is very common to see chicken sateh served with a Red Curry Peanut Sauce, which can be seen lurking behind the pad thai in the top photograph. I will probably address that sauce in a separate article, since it has a lot more uses than just this dish.
Okay. First the pad thai. Pad thai is a straight forward concoction, and I am surprised that more people do not make it at home. To prepare it, you are going to fry some rice noodles in plenty of oil, continue this cooking process with the addition of a sauce, fry the remaining ingredients with the noodles, and then add bean sprouts and cilantro right at the end. Simple and quick…also easy to do wrong and end up with lame pad thai.
The first thing you will want to do when preparing pad thai is soak the rice stick. Seen to the left, rice stick is a hard, dried rice noodle that comes in a cellophane wrapper. Dried, it is essentially inedible and fairly useless. You will want to place your rice stick in a large bowl of water and soak them for about 2 hours at a minimum. I have not found a decrease in quality with extended soaking times and have gone as long as 12 hours. The idea is to get enough moisture into the rice noodle so that when you stir fry it the absorbed moisture acts to quickly cook and soften the noodle, making it edible. If you don’t get enough moisture soaked into the rice stick, no amount of continued cooking is going to help you out; it will be chewy and bad. So unless you like food that sucks, soak your rice stick. Drain your noodles when you ready to cook them.
Make your sauce by combining all of the ingredients in a cup. As you can see, I use Squid-brand fish sauce, but you may prefer a different variety. Just make sure to not spill it on yourself; the dogs will never leave you alone. When the ingredients are combined, the sugar will have barely enough liquid to dissolve; this is normal. There should be just enough fluid to cook your noodles, but it is a good idea to have extra water on hand in case they they are not softening the way you want.
When you are ready to cook your pad thai, heat a wok over high heat and add plenty of oil; rice stick tends to, well, stick. Start with plenty of oil and avoid disaster, I say. We are going to get the shrimp out of the way first, so add them to the heated wok and cook them until they are no longer translucent. Pull the wok off of the heat and extract the shrimp from the wok using tongs. Set them aside for later.
Return the wok to the heat and add both the garlic and the tofu. Stir fry until these are beginning to brown and add the noodles. At this point, you are going to start the process of cooking the noodles by heating them in the very hot oil for about 2 to 3 minutes. Stir them constantly or they will stick. When the are heated and releasing steam, add the sauce and cook over high heat, stiring constantly. Test the noodles occasionally. When they begin to loose their chewy consistency, you will add the vegetables. Sometimes you will need to add additional water to complete the cooking.
When your noodles are done “to the tooth”, push the noodles to the side of the wok and add the peppers, peas, and scallions. Cook them until just tender. Add the bean sprouts, cooked shrimps, and cilantro. Toss to combine is sort of misleading here. Regardless of what you do, the noodles will lump together and the “stuff” will not incorporate. This is completely normal and is something you will fix when you plate the food. Don’t worry about it. You should have just produced a perfectly worthy pile of pad thai.
Fortunately the Chicken Sateh is much less fussy. All you need to do is mix the ingredient for the marinade, marinade the meat at least 1/2 hour, thread it on to skewers, and grill it or, in our case, cook it under the broiler. Make sure that you turn your skewers to avoid burning while getting the tips of the chicken bits to slightly char. This process should take less than 8 to 10 minutes on the grill and less than 12 to 15 minutes under the broiler. If you have another person start broiling the sateh about the same time you start cooking the pad thai, the timing should be just about right.
Have fun with this one. Use any variety of vegetables that you see fit, just be mindful of cooking times. I have found that hard vegetables such as broccoli, benefit from being seared first and them combined into the dish. I really recommend the Red Curry Peanut Sauce to go with this combination of flavors; goes together like bullets and guns…flies and the undead. Hard to imagine one without the other. That sort of thing.
- 5 to 6 oz. dried rice stick
- ~5 large shrimp per person, peeled and deveined but with the tails on
- ½ cup tofu, cut into ½ inch cubes
- 3 to 4 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
- 3 Tbs. canola oil
- ½ red bell pepper, cut into 1 inch pieces
- ½ cup pea pods, sliced in half
- 2 to 3 large scallions, sliced
- 1 to 1½ cups bean sprouts
- 2 to 3 Tbs. cilantro, chopped
- fresh lime wedges to garnish
- Cooking Sauce
- 3 Tbs. Sugar
- 2 Tbs. fish sauce
- 4 Tbs. white vinegar
- 1 Tbs. Korean chili
- ½ tsp. cayenne
- In a large bowl, soak rice stick in water at least 2 hours prior to cooking.
- Prior to cooking prepare the sauce by mixing the ingredients in a cup.
- To cook, heat oil over high heat in wok. Add the shrimp and cook briefly until they are no longer translucent. Remove wok from heat and remove shrimp from wok using tongs; set aside. Return wok to high heat, add garlic and tofu pieces and fry until they begin to brown.
- Add the noodles and cook until they are heated through and steaming, about 2 minutes. Add sauce and stir fry until the noodles are no longer chewy when tasted.
- Push noodles to the side of the wok, add the peppers, pea pods, and scallions. Stir fry until vegetables slightly soften. Add the cilantro and bean sprouts, and cooked shrimp. Toss to combine, remove from heat and serve.
- ¾ to 1 lb. chicken thighs, cut into strips
- ¾ cup coconut milk
- 1 Tbs. lemon grass, minced
- 1 Tbs. coriander seeds, crushed
- ½ tsp. ginger, ground
- 1 tsp. turmeric, ground
- 2 tsp. cumin, ground
- 1 tsp. black pepper, crushed
- 1 Tbs. brown sugar
- Mix ingredients together to form thin paste.
- Marinade meat in paste at least ½ hour, or as long as overnight.
- To cook, preheat oven to broil or prepare grill.
- Thread meat onto skewers, and grill/broil until cooked through, about 8 minutes on grill or 12 minutes under the broiler. Turn skewers periodically to avoid burning.