Ah, Pad Thai, you either love it or hate it, particularly when traveling to Thailand.
There are plenty of articles that decry Pad Thai. Imploring tourists to look behind the famous noodles when traveling in Thailand.
I agree. Tourists should not limit themselves to the safety of Pad Thai when traveling in Thailand. Explore some of the best of Thai food. We’ve had fabulous tom yum, a spicy and tangy prawn soup, from the guy who owns the restaurant closest to our apartment in Chong Nonsi. We don’t know the name of the restaurant, we merely call him “The Beer Guy.” But he makes a great tom yum.
Across the street, we can eat pork glass noodle salad and, surprisingly, pork neck salad, each mixed with coriander, lime, and crunchy rice.
There are so many fabulous Thai dishes to try, some more approachable than others, but I do recognize that Pad Thai is the easiest, the most approachable, and so it is what tourists tend to focus on.
That said, I don’t think tourists, or expats, should be burned at the stake for eating Pad Thai when traveling to Thailand. After all, I love Pad Thai, and I eat it all the time, at least once a week. I am not alone.
The History of Pad Thai
There is a long complicated history of Pad Thai, which involves colonialism, coups, royal power, and a lot of topics that I don’t want to get involved in. But, there is one part of the history of Pad Thai that I do want to share. In 1938, Thailand was known as Siam. The Minister of Defense, Phibun, was concerned about the consolidation of Thailand, and independence of its diverse people. He was also worried about colonization, which was over taking its neighbors. This Minister of Defense wanted to find something that could help him unite the diverse populations of Siam, so that they could weather potential attempts at colonization. Enter Pad Thai.
Phibun actually created the name Thailand. He also created Pad Thai, as a national dish. Or so the story goes.
Pad Thai is often compared with General Tso’s and other foreign interpretations of a local cuisine. But, Pad Thai is entirely different, as it originated in Thailand. Some say that Phibun created a competition to create the national dish, and some say he created it himself. There are reports from his son that it was a dish often cooked at the family home, but then introduced as the national dish.
Regardless, it’s roots are Chinese, as the Chinese are known for rice noodle dishes in the region. But, the addition of tamarind, palm sugar, and chilis, those are uniquely Thai. Phibun’s goal was to unite the Thai people behind a new national dish. I am happy he did.
Why Do I Love Pad Thai So Much
So, why do I love Pad Thai so much? First off, I am addicted to noodles, and everything similar to noodles. That can be pasta in Italy, or anything in dumpling form. After all, dumplings are just like noodles but in a different shape.
Like all Thai foods, Pad Thai focuses on balance. There’s the savory flavor of the chicken, shrimp, and tofu. There’s the spiciness from the chili flakes. The sour from the lime served. The sweetness of the sugar. And, that is one of the things I love about Pad Thai. The dish itself is a mild dish. It’s what you add to it that makes all the difference. Don’t forget the crunchy peanuts, just because peanuts are awesome.
There is a small food court about a block from our apartment in Bangkok. There are two guys who have a small stall selling Pad Thai. I’m there about once a week. It’s the perfect lunch for a little over $1 a plate.
As to the contention that Pad Thai is only for tourists. My Pad Thai stall always has one of the longest lines in the food court, and I am always the only foreigner. Pad Thai is not just for tourists, but for locals too.
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Amber Hoffman, food and travel writer behind With Husband In Tow, is a recovering attorney and professional eater, with a passion for finding new Food and Drink Destinations. She lives with her husband, Eric, in Girona, Catalonia, Spain. Together over the last 20 years, they have traveled to over 70 countries. Amber is the author of the Food Traveler’s Guide to Emilia Romagna.