Among westerners, pad Thai is one of the best-known dishes in the Thai canon. It is simple fare, a blue-collar stir fry made up of rice noodles with whatever vegetables and meats are on hand. The flavors are characteristically bold and vivid, from a variety of herbs, spices and aromatic ingredients. It is an easy dish for an Asian-food novice to make, since only a few of the flavorings are unusual for Westerners.
Ginger, Garlic and Shallots
Ginger, garlic and shallots provide the underlying flavors for much of Thai cooking, including pad Thai. Ginger and garlic are well known in America and easily obtained. Shallots are the most complex of the onions, with a sweet and subtle flavor. They can be found at most good supermarkets, but are often cheaper at Asian specialty stores. Galangal, a close relative of ginger, is also frequently used in Thai cooking and may be substituted if available.
Chilies are a signature ingredient in pad Thai. Thai chilies are very small and hot, and are sometimes referred to as "bird" chilies for their supposed resemblance to bird droppings. You may use fresh or dried chilis, though fresh-ground dried chilies are traditional. Pad Thai may be made as mild or as hot as desired by changing the quantity of peppers.
Many recipes for pad Thai call for a splash of acidity to brighten the flavors. A common souring ingredient is tamarind paste, made from the tart fruit of a tropical tree. Tamarind adds a pleasant tang to the noodles, desirable for the traditional balance of hot, sour, salty and sweet. Rice wine vinegar and lime juice are also commonly used, with the lime juice added by the diner from a garnish of fresh lime wedges.
Fish Sauce and Dried Shrimp
Fish sauce is a universal condiment in Thai cooking, adding salt and a hint of savoriness to dishes. It is a close cousin to western Worcestershire sauce, which is a peppery fish sauce with tamarind added. Tiny dried shrimp are another flavoring ingredient often used in pad Thai or soups, adding a similar brininess and complementing the flavors of other meats or seafoods.
A hint of sweetness is usually added to pad Thai to balance and moderate the other flavors. Typically palm sugar is used for that purpose. Palm sugar may be found in Asian specialty stores. In Indian stores it is sold as "jaggery" or "gur." Light brown sugar is an acceptable substitute.
Garnishes and Condiments
Much of the flavor associated with pad Thai comes from the selection of fresh condiments that are served with it. These typically include dry roasted peanuts, green onions, lime wedges and copious quantities of freshly-chopped cilantro. The dish is may also be accompanied by a variety of chili-based sauces or condiments.