Your Pad Thai or Mine

The Kitchen

    Okay ... [AB is surrounded by luggage]
    Bags packed: check.
    Guide book: check
    Research: check.
    Passport, tickets: [checks pocket] check.
    Shots: [rubs arm] check.
    Language tapes ... [pushes play and attempts to speak Thai] naymu, kandu, ... [phone rings]. Oh, we'll work on those later.

AB: [answers the phone] Hello? [removes headphones] Hello? Oh yeah, I'm all ready to go. Just waiting for the c ... What? Your first choice became available? [disappointed] No, no. Of course, that's fine. Besides, I'm very busy. Lots of projects. Got to go. Bye.

    Oh well, I guess I'll do the next best thing, ...

Asian Restaurant / The Kitchen

    ... eat.
    Okay, so it's not exactly travel. But you know, a meal can provide quite an interesting view into a foreign culture; especially if that culture is Thai, and the meal is "Pad Thai": a noodle dish which really became popular during World War II, when it was promoted by the Prime Minister of that country as a way to help his people consume less rice during times of shortage.
    You know, most of us Thai-food fans get our fixes in restaurants, where those who know best are free to do what most can't. But you know, culinary globetrotting should not be a spectator sport. And if you want to expand your far horizons but find that your seat on the big old jet airliner has been given to somebody else, well, you're just going to have to buck up and take matters into your own hands. So put away your passport, and prepare to navigate [pushes away the walls of the restaurant, revealing the kitchen] via culinary compass, because we're off to a distant land called Pad Thai, which lies slap dab in the heart of . . .

["Good Eats" theme plays]

The Kitchen

    Until 1949, Thailand, which means "Free land", was known as Siam, and as any history buff or Rodgers and Hammerstein fan can tell you, this is the one country in Southeast Asia that has never fallen under foreign rule. However, it has been heavily flavored by outer influences such as China up in the north, India to the west, and England, way way way to the west. Now Pad Thai itself is a tranquil reflection of the many influences on the region, as well as an expression of the basic tenet of Thai cuisine itself, which comes down to the careful balance of five flavors.
    Of course, as far as the human tongue is concerned, we're really only talking about four primary flavors here. There's the salty, there's the sweet, there's the sour and the bitter. But in Thai cuisine, they also consider spicy a flavor. But of course, that's really just the sensation of heat. Now although this remains balanced in Thai cuisine, it's the one sensation that American tongues are the most afraid of. [touches a large model of a tongue with a lighted torch]

TONGUE: [screams]
Sorry about that.

    So in Pad Thai, how do we really get these flavors? Well, part of it comes from the cooking process itself. But in truth, most of it comes from ingredients, such as [looks at a plate of Pad Thai and can't find an example to show] ... and ... um, just give me a minute, okay?

    [AB dissects the Pad Thai into its components, writing each one on a chalkboard] Well there we have it. Our Pad Thai parts list is complete. Now I've broken it down into three categories. Here we have the "Familiar", here we have the "Somewhat Familiar", and the category that I call "What the ... ?", which is full of foods that most of us have not tasted, would never recognize, and in some cases, can't even pronounce. Let's shop!



WHAT THE ... ?

-Dried Chili Peppers
-Rice Wine Vinegar
-Peanut Oil
-Rice Noodles
-Marinated Bean Curd (Tofu)
-Mung Bean Sprouts
-Fish Sauce (Nam Pla)
-Tamarind Paste (Ma Kahm)
-Dried Shrimp (Goong Haeng)
-Palm Sugar
-Salted Cabbage (Tung Chai)

Whole Foods Market: Atlanta, GA - 10:45 am

    I am pleased to report that a high proportion of the Pad Thai parts list is available at your local megamart. Things like garlic and peanut oil and rice wine vinegar are easy to find. Yes, rice wine vinegar is in your megamart. You've just got to look for it. Here in the produce department we will need some ... [turns around, and almost bumps into the camera] oops, sorry ... scallions, or green onions, as well as roasted salted peanuts. You're going to need about half a cup of shelled peanuts. But I like to buy them in the shell because I think they taste just a little more, I don't know, peanut-ty perhaps. And I always buy twice as many as I actually need, so I can eat them as I cook.
    Now we're going to need some chili peppers. And for Thai cuisine, I typically go with the smallest little chili that I can get because they are usually the hottest chilies in the place. So I will go with these small ... it says, dried Japanese peppers. That will be fine. We're going to be grinding them up. We don't need many, maybe eight. [holds up the bag] I don't even know how they're going to weigh that unless they can weigh molecules. I don't know.
    We're also going to need limes, at least a couple of, a couple of limes. [looks around and not finding any, spots an unattended shopping cart with limes, AB steals two] I'm sure that's abandoned. Don't worry about that.
    And bean sprouts. Now I like using mung bean sprouts. They are typical in Asian cuisine. You can recognize them from alfalfa sprouts because the sprout part is a lot thicker. Now they are packed with nutrition and are ridiculously easy to grow at home. But we're going to save that for our Survival Eats show. That should be fun. These will go south faster than just about anything in the produce section, so you want to get them out of this container and into something big and spacious. A glass jar would be ideal, maybe a leftover yogurt container. Anything that will allow them to have a little air to breathe, so that they will not rot in the refrigerator. You only have a couple of days on these, so cook fast.
    Now when it comes to soybean curd, a.k.a. tofu, four out of five stir-frys that call for tofu prefer extra-firm tofu over the custard-y silken tofu so often served as dessert in Japan. In this case, we need the firmness, not only for texture, but so that it won't fall apart inside the wok. Now this container holds 14 ounces and that'll leave just enough for, I don't know, scrambled eggs in the morning.
    Although rice noodles, that is noodles actually made of rice instead of wheat flour, are popping up in more and more ethnic aisles of megamarts, I'd be willing to bet that whatever you find in your market will probably pale in comparison to what you would find in your friendly neighborhood Asian market.

They say that in Thailand there is a different Pad Thai recipe for every cook.

Hoa Binh* Supermarket: Atlanta, GA - 12:15 pm

AB: [addressing a rack of ducks that are hanging on display] Hey guys.

    If you've never visited this bit of culinary territory before, it can be a little intimidating. But don't panic. You will encounter sights, sounds, flavors, languages that you've never seen, heard, tasted, or smelled before. But think of it as a culinary journey abroad; only you don't have to have any shots, and you get to sleep in your own bed at night, which is kind of nice.
    Now step one is to just look around. Get oriented. Take a little walk. Take some pictures.

AB: [to the ducks] Smile, guys. [snaps a picture] Ha ha. I love that.

    Now, luckily, most of the stuff on our Pad Thai parts list is easy to recognize. And believe it or not, most of these packages do have English descriptions on them if you're really willing to take a look at them. Now some Pad Thai recipes call for cellophane noodles which look a lot like our rice noodles. But they're made from other forms of starch, like arrowroot, cornstarch, or even beans. Now dried rice noodles are usually called "rice sticks," they come in a lot of different sizes and shapes; here are some wide flat ones. Not exactly what we are looking for for Pad Thai. We are going to go with a more narrow version almost like angel hair pasta, for those of you that are fans of that form. One package will certainly be enough for our recipe.
    Next stop, fish sauce. And yes, that's pretty much exactly what it sounds like. "Nam pla" is Thai for fish sauce, or, to be more precise, fish water. This stuff is as crucial to the cuisines of Southeast Asia as soy sauce is to those of China or Japan. Now to make it, you basically take a bunch of little fish, usually anchovies, and you layer them in just a big box with salt, and you let it just sit there and ferment for up to a year. You then squeeze out the liquid, and you strain it, and bottle it. Now if you're thinking that this might have a pungent aroma [smells], by golly you'd be right. Luckily, the fragrance mellows a little bit when cooked. Now a quality fish sauce is always reddish-brown and completely clear, never murky, kind of like whiskey. And the ingredient list should be blissfully short: anchovies or fish, salt, water, maybe a little bit of sugar. Believe me, no MSG is necessary and neither are preservatives. Bacteria don't want a piece of this action.
    Poke your head into the refrigerator case, and you will no doubt encounter some "Tam Kho Thuong Hang", a.k.a. dried shrimp, a very common and important seasoning in Thai cuisine, as well as many of the cuisines of Southeast Asia. Now they are nothing more than tiny little sun-dried shrimp, and the flavor is very concentrated, very, very briny. It is an excellent seasoning, but you definitely want to fight the urge to make little shrimp cocktails out of it. You wouldn't like that.
    Now this crazy contraption holds the seeds of the tamarind tree, which are in themselves wrapped up in a very odd-looking paste, which has a very complex taste: a little bit sour, a little bit bitter. [tastes] A little bit sweet. Kind of like a lime-flavored raisin. Since in the end, all we really need is to produce the flavorful liquid from this, we might as well do away with the hard labor and just buy it in paste form. [retrieves a package from a nearby shelf] Soak this in boiling water, force it through a sieve and you're good to go.
    Next thing we need: palm sugar. Now this stuff is made from sap that drips from the buds of the sugar palm. After collection, the sap is boiled down until all that remains is a sticky sugar, kind of like maple sugar. To use, just break off a hunk and use it like you would any other sugar.
    The last ingredient on today's list: preserved or salted cabbage, which can be called either tung chai, or tianjin, after the city that is apparently famous for producing this dish. It's little more than cabbage and salt, but it lends an amazing flavor, and of course, texture to stir-frys, soups, and what-not.
    Well, that's it. Guess it's time for me to catch my flight home. Oh, that's right. I'm already home. I love this place.

Southeast Fixtures: Atlanta, GA - 2:15 pm

    Top quality authentic ingredients are all fine and good, but they do not a Pad Thai make. For that, you're going to need a big old bucket of heat delivered fast and furious. Now can this be attained in a standard American pan on a standard American cook top? Well, you can get by. But if you really want to take your tongue on a trip, you're going to wok this way.
    Now understand the wok shape is perfect for stir-frys, because the heat can be tightly focused at the bottom, but it rapidly dissipates as it moves up and out towards the rim of the pan. Now a skilled wok-meister uses this to his or her advantage, by pushing cooked ingredients up the sides, where they'll stay warm without overcooking.
    Now you can certainly find yourself a top quality wok at some fancy shmancy culinary emporium, but if you really want to hit the mother lode as far as selection goes, you'll do a little research and find yourself a restaurant supply store that specializes in Asian kitchen supplies. Now let me just show you a ... [rocks forward, to reveal that he is sitting cross-legged in a large wok and he can't easily get out] Can I just have a little privacy, please?
    Top quality woks are easy to spot. They are deep and well-rounded. They are sturdy in construction. All the rivets are nice and heavy-duty, and they are made out of good metal, generally high-carbon steel. [picks up a wok]. Oooh, this one you can actually see the hammer marks where it was hand-finished. That's a nice sign of craftsmanship.
    Now for just everyday stir-frying at home, a 14-inch wok will probably do you fine [shows the wok that he is holding] Fourteen inch. But if you're going to be doing any kind of entertaining, I think a 16-inch is a far far better thing. As for handles, the double-looped style is very popular in restaurants because it stays out of the way. You've got less chances of kind of knocking things over. But to tell the truth, in an average home kitchen or in an average home back yard, I really think that the single hollow metal handle is better for pan handling.
    As for the color, this is not a non-stick surface. It is simply a protective coating, placed on the pan to keep it from rusting. It will wear off and burn off with time, and that's a good thing.

In Thailand, new woks are traditionally seasoned with pork fat.

The Kitchen: Night Time

    Now Pad Thai is a stir fry, and stir-frys happen fast. Once they start, there's no getting off the ride, so proper preparation is key. And if I've said it once, I've said it, I don't know, seven times, "Organization will set you free." First step, prep your tofu.
    Now this is something that I usually do the night before I actually prepare the Pad Thai itself. I have here 12 ounces of extra-firm tofu, cut into four slices. It is enough for four servings. I want to get some flavor into this via marinade, but in order to do that, we've got to squeeze out some moisture first, so here we have a baking pan that I'm going to line with a little tea towel, like that, and we'll just lay out these pieces so that they are not touching. Fold that over, put another baking pan on top, and then we'll need a weight to actually wring that out. Five pounds ought to do the trick [holds up a five pound barbell weight]. If you don't have one of these, you can use a phone book or a few cans of food. And into the refrigerator. [yawns] Good night!

The Kitchen: Next Day

    The next day, unwrap your tofu, and give it a soak for one half hour in one and a half cups of soy sauce laced with one teaspoon of five spice powder. Which, if you're feeling industrious, you can make yourself by grinding together equal portions of star anise, fennel seeds, cloves, Szechuan peppercorns (which aren't actually peppercorns; they're really the fruits of the prickly ash), and cassia, or Chinese cinnamon.

1 1/2 cup soy sauce
+ 1 tsp 5 spice powder

* Star Anise
* Fennel Seeds
* Cloves
* Szechuan Peppercorns
* Cassia

    Next step, bring a kettle of water to a boil and pour three-quarters of a cup over one ounce of the tamarind paste. Now we're going to let that just kind of sit and soak for a few minutes.

3/4 Cup Boiling Water
+1 Ounce Seedless
Tamarind Paste

    In the meantime, grab a cutting board, and retrieve the marinating tofu. Now remember, we had four pieces in here. We do not need that many. We're only going to do two servings here. So I'll retrieve two and save two for later. They can continue to marinate for several minutes. Just grab a knife and slice them thin. Now we're looking for about half inch pieces here. You don't have to be too rigorous with it. That's enough. That will give us even portions for both servings. We'll move those over to a bowl in our mise en place tray.

6 Ounces Marinated Tofu

    Now, time to build the Pad Thai sauce. The tamarind is finished soaking, so I'm going to grab another bowl and a hand sieve or hand strainer. It needs to be a relatively fine mesh. And we will mix together two tablespoons of our palm sugar with two tablespoons of the fish sauce and one tablespoon of rice wine vinegar. And just kind of mash that down. It doesn't have to dissolve thoroughly yet.

2 Tbs. Palm Sugar
2 Tbs. Fish Sauce
1 Tbs. Rice Wine Vinegar

    That's good enough. And we're going to strain in the tamarind mixture. Now the goal is to squeeze all of the pulp out of the tamarind, while leaving all of the seeds and kind of stringy stuff behind. You know, the stuff that looks like this. Of course, you can tell your kids it's beef stew and just watch the fun unfold. Don't eat this. There.

    As for our four ounces of rice noodles, they don't have to cook. But they do need to rehydrate in hotóbut not too hotówater. This is about 128 degrees. I like to use what's left over from my kettle, but hot tap water would do as well. Ten minutes will do the job.

4 Ounces Rice Stick Noodles

    As for the rest of our ingredients, everything gets it's own little bowl. A cup of scallions, chopped on the bias, a couple of teaspoons of minced garlic, two whole eggs, two teaspoons of our salted cabbage, one tablespoon of dried shrimp chopped, three ounces of bean sprouts, half a cup of salted peanuts, and just a wee bit of ground dried chilies for garnish.

1 Cup Scallions, Chopped
2 tsp. Minced Garlic
2 Whole Eggs
2 tsp. Salted Cabbage
1 Tbs. Dried Shrimp,
   Chopped Fine
3 Ounces Mung Bean Sprouts
1/2 Cup Salted Peanuts,
6-8 Freshly Ground Dried
    Chile Peppers
    Last, but not least, one lime, but we'll wait and cut this up when we're finished. 1 Lime Cut Into Wedges

    Now, time to find a launching pad for this [wok].

The Porch

GUESTS: Two lawyers

    Even if my cook top could properly accommodate a wok, which it can't, I wouldn't stir-fry in the house, unless it was in the dead of winter and the furnace wasn't working. Besides, out here on the porch, I have this [charcoal grill]. Believe you me, a couple of quarts of hardwood charcoal will generate all the BTUs necessary for woking. If you place your cooking grate on top, and then top that with a wok ring, available for about ten bucks at any kitchen store, you've got yourself the perfect woking platform.
    Now, my legal team has asked me to remind you that, like swimming, playing golf, or sitting still on your sofa, grilling can be hazardous. [pulls a paper from the lawyers' briefcase] So make sure that you comply with all local, state, and federal guidelines for this kind of activity, and at all times, obey the manufacturers instruction booklet, and I'd like to add, it never hurts to keep one of these [fire extinguishers] around  just in case. In ten minutes, this will be ripping hot and ready to go.

AB: Guys, keep an eye on this for me while I grab my food.

The earliest woks were made of clay and date
to the Hans Dynasty (206BC-220AD).

The Patio

    Our wok is rocket hot. The mise en place is on deck. I have a large heat-protective device on my hand. My legal team is standing by. And look, they've done a lovely job slicing up the limes. That's nice.

AB: [to the lawyers] Alright, fellows, we're ready to ride. The safety bar is down. There are no stops from here on.

    We approach the wok. We cook.

    A small bit of our oil goes in the pan. We follow that immediately with the tofu, which we will cook very very briefly, tossing constantly.

1 Tbs. Peanut Oil

    When the tofu is nice and brown around the corner, we will take that out to the bowl from whence it came. We'll add that back later.

    The wok goes back down, a little bit more oil goes in, and in go about two-thirds of our scallions. All of our garlic goes in, and stir.

Additional Peanut Oil if Necessary

    Now we introduce the egg to the party. We'll let those sit for just a second, until they start to solidify, then we scramble. There we go.
    Once the eggs have scrambled, we'll quickly bring on the noodles and the sauce. A little steam.

LAWYERS: [grimace]

    Give that a toss, to get them moistened, and about two-thirds of the mung bean sprouts, along with about two-thirds of the peanuts, all of the salted cabbage, all of those beautiful little shrimps, and toss to coat. All that mass is going to bring down the heat in the wok a little bit, so I'm going to let it sit just for a few moments, so that the steam from the sauce in the bottom of the wok can come up through the dish, flavoring it and warming everything through.
    Now at this point, we can add the tofu back to the pan, and toss again. There, heat it through. Time to plate.
    Now, let's see. We will garnish with the rest of the bean sprouts, some more of the scallions, the rest of the nuts, especially around the edges. [spills a few] Don't worry about that. And ...

AB: [to the lawyers] Don't breathe in, guys. ... the chilies. There we go. Last, but not least, the limes that you so graciously cut. Very nice. Thanks for your help, guys. See 'ya! [takes the food and leaves]

The Thai food philosophy can be summed up in two words:
arroy, meaning "delicious" and sanuk, meaning "fun".

The Kitchen

    Okay, so I didn't get the trip, but I also didn't get the delayed flights, the grumpy customs agents, the messed up hotel reservations, and hey, I didn't get bitten by a single mosquito.
    So who's to say that you have to travel to get out of town? Thanks to a little culinary curiosity, we've opened the door to a larger world. One where the grocer becomes the travel agent, and the only jet engine you need is the one you park your wok on. I'm Alton Brown wishing you bon voyage not to mention "Good Eats".

*Hoa Binh: is a city in Vietnam and is the capital of the Hoa Binh Providence

Transcribed by Michael Roberts
Proofread by Michael Menninger

Hit Counter

Last Edited on 08/27/2010