I still remember the first time I tasted Pad Thai. I was a teenager in high school. It was my first Thai dining experience. And that authentic dining experience was at a Tara Thai located in a typical suburban strip mall in Rockville, Maryland. Alright, so I’m not sure how “authentic” it was, but it sure was tasty. Even if you’re not an ethnic food enthusiast, you’ve probably tried Pad Thai at least once and had the same thought I did, “Damn, this is tasty stuff. What’s in it?” A balance of sweet, savory, tart, and sometimes spice, its unique flavors make it a crowd favorite and also a little mystifying. Luckily this often-ordered restaurant dish can be demystified in your kitchen with our easy Pad Thai recipe that’s been adapted for a home cook’s pantry.
Traditional Pad Thai contains 5 to 6 components: soy sauce and/ or fish sauce* to add the savory; tamarind sauce to add the sweetness and tartness (it’s also what gives Pad Thai its distinctive orange-tint); sugar to add more sweetness; lime juice for more tartness, and peppers or hot sauce to add the heat. Most home cooks’ pantries already contain soy sauce, brown sugar, and limes, and I’ve been increasingly seeing fish sauce as well. If you haven’t added fish sauce to your pantry, I highly encourage you to do so. Use it anywhere where you might use salt and experience the flavor it adds to your dishes. On the other hand, I don’t find tamarind to be nearly as versatile. In an effort to keep our pantries from exploding, this Pad Thai recipe leaves out the tamarind and just uses brown sugar and lime juice to add the elements of sweet and tart. You don’t get the orange color, but you also don’t get stuck with another open jar of “what was that again and when did I buy it?” in your fridge, and I’m all about that.
Now that we’ve established the sauce, the only other “exotic” ingredient might be the Pad Thai noodles themselves. They are just dried flat rice noodles. If you can’t find a box that says “Pad Thai” noodles on them, don’t fret. Just look for anything that says rice noodles or rice stick and resembles the width of linguine or fettucine. If you really can’t find them, then linguine and fettucine will be perfectly acceptable substitutes. If tofu is exotic to you, then you clearly didn’t grow up in an East Asian home like me. If you’re not ready to take the tofu plunge, then shrimp or chicken will also work with this dish. The recipe below again is more a cooking formula for you to be creative with, so go on and take some creative liberties. If you’re ready to take the tofu plunge, this is the dish to do it as it gets masked in all those complex flavors and rice noodles.
Alright, that’s it. Go on and take the mystique out of Pad Thai in your own kitchen and report back on how easy that was.
*Vegetarians can sub more soy sauce instead of using fish sauce
Quick tip: Remember to keep yourself organized in the kitchen. This is how we set up our mise en place to get ready to cook our Pad Thai (we were sadly out of garlic that day which is why it’s not pictured):
Another quick tip: Why is Thai food so good? Because it combines a lot of different flavors creating delicious complexity. To learn more about balancing flavors, check out this video we put together for you here
- Green onions – 3 stalks
- Super-firm, vacuum-packed tofu – 1 lb.
- Garlic – 4 cloves
- Pad Thai (or flat rice) noodles – ½ lb.
- Fish sauce (sub with soy sauce for vegetarians) – 4 tbs.
- Soy sauce – 2.5 tbs.
- Brown sugar – 2.5 tbs.
- Hot sauce (optional) – up to you
- Eggs – 4
- Limes – 2
- Cilantro (optional) – a few sprigs
- Peanuts (optional) – ¼ cup
- Green onions – Chop green parts 1″ long, white / light green parts in smaller segments
- Tofu – Chop into small cubes
- Garlic – mince
- Cook noodles according to package instructions. Traditional rice noodles cook by soaking in boiled water vs. cooking in boiled water. 5 to 8 minutes of soaking in hot water is the usual range. When cooked through, drain but leave the noodles in some water (~1/4 cup) to prevent them from sticking
- Mix together fish sauce, soy sauce, brown sugar, and hot sauce
- Heat a non-stick wok or pan with higher walls over medium-high heat. Add 1 tbs. oil and then minced garlic. Once you can smell the garlic, add tofu with 2 tbs. of sauce mixture and ground pepper. Cook for 5 minutes, until tofu has started to brown. Remove from pan and set aside. While tofu is cooking, whisk eggs together with some salt & pepper
- Return pan to medium heat. Add 1 tbs. of oil and then white parts of green onions to heated oil. Sauté for ~15 seconds and then add eggs. Scramble lightly for ~1 minute and then set aside in the same bowl as the tofu (it’s fine if the eggs aren’t cooked through yet)
- Return pan to medium-high heat. Add 1 tbs. of oil and then noodles with the remainder of the sauce. Stir-fry for ~1 minute and then toss in tofu, eggs, and green parts of the green onions. Toss through and season with the juice of ½ a lime. Season to taste with more soy sauce, fish sauce, brown sugar, hot sauce, or lime juice
- Chop remaining lime into wedges as garnish. You can also enjoy your noodles with cilantro and / or peanuts
- Not a tofu fan? Not a problem. Use this same cooking formula for other proteins such as chicken or shrimp
- Noodles, sauce, and tofu can be made ahead of time and refrigerated. That way when you come home all you have to do is whisk some eggs and throw it all together in a pan
- Crave that orange-y flavor? It’s not authentic (but who will know?) but add a few squirts of ketchup. It’ll give your Pad Thai some extra sweetness and tang