The origin of food is often a very contentious subject. The Thai government recently revealed that they plan to attempt standardizing recipes for three of their ‘signature’ dishes, Tom Yam Goong, Massaman Curry and Pad Thai – the last of which is arguably the iconic dish that represents Thai cuisine throughout the world.
Throngs of travelers who arrive in Thailand seek out a plate of Pad Thai as soon as they arrive, often considering it as a thing to check-off their ‘to do’ list. But is the dish actually Thai? It’s almost impossible to trace the genealogy of one specific dish, so have we just universally accepted the dish as Thai because of a clever naming strategy?
The restaurant that claims to be responsible for adapting the dish to its current form is Thip Samai restaurant in Bangkok – although it’s almost certain that many other places would also make that claim.
Now served on every menu within a stone’s throw of a tourist attraction in Thailand, the fried noodle dish uses a delicious blend of sweet and sour flavorings from tamarind, fish sauce, egg and chili combined with ingredients such as bean sprouts, shrimp and tofu commonly found in the ‘classical’ version that the current Thai government is attempting to standardize.
There is evidence, as with most Asian cuisine, that its roots lie in China – the world’s longest running civilization. The full name of the dish is kuayteow pad (noodles fried) in the Thai language, yet kuayteow is also the way Chinese say ‘rice noodles’.
Other sources suggest that the dish in an adaptation of the Vietnamese noodle dish Pho – an argument that’s hard to dispute, as the ingredients are similar, but Thai-style Pad Thai is stir-fried rather than served in soup form.
However the dish arrived in the Land of Smiles, its rise to prominence as one of Thailand’s most popular dishes was undoubtedly aided by Field Marshall Plaek Phibunsongkram, who served two stints as the Thai Prime Minister during a period of rapid change for the Southeast Asian nation, including moving the country from an absolute monarchy to democracy and even changing the kingdom’s name.
Field Marshall Plaek Phibunsongkram was personally responsible for many progressive developments in the country during his reign as the 3rd Prime Minister which ran until August 1944. As well as changing the name of Siam to Thailand, he also had an influence on the country’s cuisine, encouraging the use of the fork and spoon as eating utensils and disseminating the recipe for Pad Thai throughout the nation.
Soon enough, eating Pad Thai was seen as a patriotic act, supporting the kingdom through consummation of non-rice products so that it may be exported and sold to other countries, thus aiding the economy during a time when the world was at war.
Now, almost 100 years on, the Thai government is once again turning to cuisine to make a global impact. Their aim is to spread the ‘authentic’ recipe far and wide to replace non-genuine versions of the delicious dishes. They believe that the standardization of the recipes will promote Thai cuisine in general, creating a drive for Thai produce and recognition for the cuisine. It seems an unlikely proposition, especially as even within a few meters of each other, two street stalls may produce two Pad Thai dishes that taste different, but time will tell.
Whatever the subtle difference in taste around the globe, Pad Thai is certainly a delicious, quick-to-make dish that rarely fails to delight. If you’re planning a trip, and like most other travelers, would like to see what the fuss is about; contact our Bangkok-based travel specialists to find out where to go for the best Pad Thai in the City of Angels.