After successfully making Pad Thai, I decided to research the origin of this Thai dish, assuming my research would be straightforward; I would find articles about how Pad Thai has always been a traditional Thai meal that families have eaten for centuries. To my surprise, I found out that Pad Thai does not actually originate from Thailand; the rice noodles that the dish calls for are actually the very same used in Vietnamese Pho, a noodle soup with beef. The Vietnamese began incorporating rice noodles into their meals many years before Thailand, eventually making delicious stir-fried rice noodle dishes that would be brought over to Thailand by either Chinese or Vietnamese traders. This stir-fried rice noodle dish became the basis for the Pad Thai recipe, which did not become popular amongst Thai people until after World War II. Throughout the 1940s, Thailand’s Prime Minister, Luang Phibunsongkram, was attempting to strengthen Thai nationalism and promote centralization; he was worried about the weakening economy that was heavily reliant on rice exports and the resulting consequences if the rice-dependent economy flopped. Creatively, he promoted the production of rice noodles with their excess rice supplies, radically popularizing Pad Thai within a few short years. Because of an alternative effort to save his country’s troubled economy, Prime Minister Luang inadvertently made Pad Thai a signature Thai dish that is enjoyed around the world today.
Pad Thai, while extremely popular, apparently is NOT a traditional Thai dish and is not served in formal, fine-dining restaurants in Thailand. Rather, it is a street food sold by cart vendors – since it is actually just stir fry – that is probably more popular in Thai restaurants in other countries than in Thailand itself. With years of experimentation, Thai culture has discovered the key to perfecting the taste of this dish, blending a perfect combination of salty, sweet, and sour – explaining why my recipes called for lime, which I hate. To achieve this taste, a number of various ingredients can be used and substituted for each other. For example, fish sauce is primarily used to get a salty taste in this dish; however, many western countries are not accustomed to this taste – and it is not vegetarian – so people often opt to use soy sauce or palm sugar instead. Also, tamarind can be substituted with vinegar, sugar cane, or lime juice – which is great since I have no idea what tamarind is. The ability to replace ingredients in this dish without sacrificing the expected taste shows how flexible this dish is; if I decide I do not like a certain ingredient, I can always replace it with something that I like better. What I really need to be conscious of while I’m cooking is the ratio of salty, sweet, and sour. For future reference, when I cook this I must start to become aware of blending the flavors together into a unified taste. Experimenting with alternate ingredients to get those flavors equally represented will be a fun task to try in the near future.