If you’re anything like me, Thai food is a friendly constant in your takeout rotation. While I am a sucker for anything curry, or chicken with cashews, or tom kha gai soup (but that’s another blog post), I invariably end up coming back to pad thai. When you crave it, nothing else will do, perhaps due to its tangy umami blast of flavor and the supreme satisfaction that comes with eating a bowl full of noodles; maybe you added the bean sprouts and maybe, this is the moment where you gloriously abandon vegetation of any kind and head straight for the scrumptious rice noodles and protein.
This pad thai recipe attempts to come as close to the “authentic” flavor one might find at a Thai restaurant as possible.
The only ingredient I had to go out of my way to purchase was tamarind purée, which one can certainly find at a local Asian Market.
Ways to Spruce Up Your Pad Thai
- tofu, shrimp, chicken, beef, or other protein
- bean sprouts
- cilantro, garlic scapes, scallions, or other pungent, herby greens
- chopped peanuts or cashews
- chili oil, chili crunch, chili flakes
By and large, this is at its core a simple dish–remember, in Thailand this is often served as street food–so keeping it simple is a great way to honor pad thai’s distinct flavor.
Tamarind Paste–Do I Really Need It?
While a quick google search has proved that there are a plethora of pad thai recipes on the internet which skip this ingredient in favor of more…shall we say, “western”?…ingredients, I find that the tamarind paste not only is a key player in pad thai’s trademark tangy flavor, but it also contributes to the overall color of the dish as well. I have made this dish with and without tamarind paste and, I have to say, that certain je ne sais quoi is really present WITH the paste. Fortunately, you can find tamarind purée for as little as $4 and use it in both sweet and savory dishes…plus, who doesn’t love expanding their flavor dictionary?
What Is Tamarind?
Also called tamarindo or Indian date, tamarind is a fruit in the legume family which grows in tropical places. The brown, sticky pulp is harvested from around the seeds growing in crescent-shaped pods hanging from the tamarind tree, then is pulverized and sold as a paste. Tamarind’s distinctive flavor comes from its high tartaric acid content, which is most commonly connoted with grapes. (Cream of tartar is the powdered form of this acid, and is the ingredient which gives snickerdoodle cookies their familiar tang.)
Other Uses for Tamarind Purée
- Meat tenderizer–tamarind and beef are a classic combination, as tamarind is one of the primary ingredients in Worcestershire sauce
- Blended with spices and coconut milk (think: garam masala, curry, turmeric, ginger…)
- Tempered with sugar in sweets or baked goods anywhere you might use lemon juice
- Blended into shrubs or cocktails
- Check out this recipe for agua fresca, a sort of tropical “lemonade” !
But back to pad thai…
First, gather your ingredients.
Here I’ve featured a block of extra firm tofu as my main source of protein, accompanied by two eggs; of course, choose whatever protein is going to make your pad thai dreams come true. Shrimp or prawns are an excellent choice.
Dredge the tofu in cornstarch and fry, rotating until golden; scramble the eggs; make the sauce; grate the ginger, garlic, and onion; cook the noodles…then assemble in a hot pan or wok!
Finish with herbs, any chili products, bean sprouts, and chopped nuts. Enjoy immediately, and restart the clock for “when it’s time to eat pad thai again”…but don’t wait too long! 😉
- wok (optional)
- 4 oz dry rice noodles
- boiling water (enough to cover noodles)
- 2 eggs, lightly scrambled
- 1/2 medium onion, grated finely into a pulp
- 3 garlic cloves, medium
- 1 inch fresh ginger, peeled
- 8 oz extra firm tofu, drained, patted dry with paper towels, and cut into 1" cubes
- 1/4 cup cornstarch
- 3 Tbs coconut oil
- salt, to taste
- 2 Tbs peanut oil
- 3 Tbs fish sauce
- 3 Tbs brown sugar or coconut sugar
- 3 Tbs tamarind water, (Note: If your tamarind comes in a thick paste, dilute with water until it is the consistency of orange juice.)
- 1 tsp soy sauce
- 1 lime, cut into wedges
- fresh bean sprouts, chili flakes or paste, chopped scallions or cilantro, roasted peanuts and/or cashews, optional
- Prepare any toppings you might like to add to your pad thai like herbs or scallions, roasted nuts, lime, or chili products and set aside.
- Scramble the two eggs in a small bowl with a splash of room temperature water and set aside.
- Grate onion, garlic, and ginger on the second-finest side of a box grater and set aside.
- Whisk fish sauce, tamarind, brown sugar, and soy sauce in a small bowl or liquid measuring cup and set aside.
- Cook your protein. If using tofu like featured above, drain and dry the tofu and cut it into one inch cubes. Dredge in cornstarch and salt. Heat coconut oil in a skillet over medium heat and sautee the tofu cubes until golden brown on all sides, rotating as necessary, about 15 minutes. Drain over paper towels.
- Meanwhile, place your rice noodles in a wide, shallow bowl. Boil enough water to completely cover the noodles, and let them soak undisturbed for 7 minutes.
- While the noodles are soaking, heat the peanut oil over medium-high heat in a large skillet or wok, if using. Add the ginger, garlic, and onion "paste" and sautee until the onion becomes aromatic, about 3 minutes. Add the beaten eggs to the pan and mix with a spatula until incorporated and cook for 1 minute. Turn the heat down to medium and add the drained, slightly stiff noodles to the pan and stir. Cook, stirring constantly for another 3 minutes.
- Add pad thai sauce (fish sauce mixture) and cook for another minute.
- If using, toss in any bean sprouts and turn off the heat. Finish with a generous squeeze of lime and the sauteed tofu and stir.
- Top with herbs, nuts, or chili flakes and serve immediately with lime wedges on the side.