February 5, 2007

Pad Thai Adventure

Chow Mein Co.

Where chow mein is born.

I found the Fall River Asian markets that people were telling me about this weekend. It was fun to go poking around in them. You can see some external pictures on my Flickr account. I’m shy about whipping out the camera in crowded markets, so no shots of products. Maybe next time.

One of the markets was in a rougher section of town. Although I had no problems, extended family members expressed concern.

In any case, this post is about Pad Thai. My plan was to make it from scratch. I knew friends had made it in the past (maybe if he surfs by, BriWei share his recipe) but the Alton Brown version looked complicated. There are lots of unusual ingredients.

I remember Pad Thai being subtle and complex. But, to tell the honest truth, I have trouble describing or remembering the exact flavor from when I have had it in restaurants. It’s been a while. So I was flying somewhat blind.

Maggie, Julie and I began to survey the ingredients. I started with the palm sugar. It comes in little disks. And, honestly, I was nor prepared for the earthy aroma. We almost declared it a non-ingredient, but I tasted it and made Maggie and Julie do likewise before deciding to go ahead and use it.

Next - fish sauce. Gahhh! “Pungent” is an understatement. I wondered how I could possibly have this ingredient in any dish without ruining the flavor. I hesitated to taste it straight. Both salty and fishy, one might also use the word “rank.” And the odor tends to linger.

Tamarind paste was also a challenge. Earthiness and sourness were its main virtues.

I prepared the combination - each of the three in equal proportions and then I was supposed to “adjust to my taste.” I repeat: Gahhhhh! I was very worried at this point in the meal prep. I tasted the mixture and I was surprised. It was still quite pungent and unpleasant but now it seemed complex as well. A flavor that could be an acquired taste. But still quite bad. I had heated the mixture to dissolve the palm sugar, and the daughters were complaining about the smell… from upstairs.

A crucial moment passed. Do I continue, or bail? A vote was taken: continue with the adventure. We did not want to live in gastronomic ignorance. I much appreciated the faith my dinner companions had in me. “You do this and there’s no turning back.”1

I ground up Thai peppers. I ground up dried pink shrimp that looked like bait. I sliced my semi-frozen chicken paper thin. I ground peanuts. I soaked rice noodles. I prepared my mise en place. Or, as I (for some odd reason) like to say “got my mize on.” I dove into the recipe headlong.

There was a flurry of frying, noodling, pouring, tossing, dumping, tossing again and flavor adjusting. I used a decent amount of my prepared sauce and I was surprised to find that when mixed with Thai peppers, sesame oil, peanuts and rice noodles, with a squeeze of lime, it was quite good. I was shocked. The difference was dramatic. I can’t exactly explain how these ingredients become bearable in the final dish, but they do. I liked the result, and I will likely make it again. Next time will be easier.

Sorry - I was too tired at the end to photograph the result. And I had made my dinner companions wait too long. Part of the secret to successful cooking is making sure you’re family is hungry when you feed them. Even K ate some.

“Do you want Pad Thai?”

“Does it have anything I don’t like in it?”

“No” (sotto voce: you’ve never had most of these ingredients)


1 This is an all-purpose phrase that is fun to deliver, in appropriately dramatic movie actor voice, liberally throughout your daily life. Don’t overdo it though. Except at parties.

Posted by James at February 5, 2007 12:16 AM
Create Social Bookmark Links

You are a better man than I, while I don't mind doing some cooking my theory is if it's not in the cupboard than I'm not using it.

As you can imagine this limits the amount of recipes that I can use.

I can make pretty good chocolate chip oatmeal cookies though.

Posted by: Lefty at February 5, 2007 5:15 AM

The Pad Thai was really quite delicious -- subtle and complex. I had it again for lunch yesterday, and I will eat it again today. The sauce smelled and tasted *horrible*, so I am in utter amazement that anybody ever created this dish. It was really almost flee-from-the-room horrible, and I still can't smell everything because of my cold, so it must've been worse for the non-nasally challenged.

Posted by: Maggie at February 5, 2007 10:08 AM

It was an amazing transformation. The sugar smelled like the feet of a dead person with athlete's foot. Mixing it with tamarind and fish sauce made it smell even worse. Yet, somehow, it all worked out. I'm still not sure how.

Posted by: Julie at February 5, 2007 12:52 PM

Copyright © 1999-2007 James P. Burke. All Rights Reserved