Monday, February 3, 2014

Hunting for the Ultimate Pad Thai

Hunting for the Ultimate Pad Thai

Hunting for the ultimate pad Thai may be a continuing quest. Most Thai restaurants appeal to a largely Caucasian clientele, which influences many of them to compromise their cuisine by taming the long and gradual development and release of flavour that is a Thai culinary attribute. I am always looking for serious Asian restaurants that make no concessions to Western palates. Even in these enlightened times, they are few and far between.

Contrary to common belief, not all Thai cooking vibrates the Scoville Scale (the empirical measurement of detectable heat) and every region in Thailand has its own temperament which is reflected in the cuisine.

Despite the advent of the tourism industry in Thailand in the 1960’s, Thai cuisine had no real profile outside of Thailand until the late 1980’s.

During 1940’s, as part of a campaign to promote democracy and nationalism in Thailand (formerly known as Siam), and seeking to reduce domestic rice consumption, pad Thai became widely embraced in a profile-raising effort by the government to encourage the sale of rice noodles from street carts and in small restaurants. Rice has always been at the core of Thai cuisine. To eat pad Thai became a patriotic act, one which allowed the government to make more rice products available for export.

In a few decades, pad Thai has gone from being virtually anonymous to becoming a ubiquitous restaurant and take out staple. In reality, it is a minor dish in repertoire, but it has become a global ambassador for Thai cuisine. I confess, I have always been a disciple of Thai curry but indifferent to pad Thai. For the purpose of this article I embarked on a two-month quest to distinguish the different nuances in preparation and flavouring among a diversity of restaurants. When ordering pad Thai I now have a benchmark for authenticity and an expectation of fresh, firm, medium-slender rice noodles with a particular bite profile. Precisely cooked, pad Thai noodles are never starchy, gloopy or stuck together. The properly cooked rice noodle should be dry and with separate strands, much like correctly cooked al dente pasta.

Deconstructing the recipe for pad Thai divulges a collection of ingredients that are not overly remarkable. It is only in the combining and balancing of these ingredients that we discover the resulting dish is greater than the sum of its parts. Peanuts and nearly raw bean sprouts add a required, reserved crunch and counterpart for the rice noodles. A well prepared pad Thai divulges its flavour profile incrementally: restrained sweetness with bursts of salty, sour and tart flavours in a fresh tasting, lemony, hot dish.

Pad Thai is never sickly sweet or an undignified neon orange or fluorescent tangerine. It derives its colour and aromatics from tamarind paste and fish sauce, and is ideally an unassuming brownish-red shade, studded with bits of green onions, bean sprouts, tofu, chilies, salted radish, cilantro, toasted peanut and scrambled egg.

An inordinate number of non-Thai restaurants feature pad Thai (or credible variations) on their menus, yet in far too many instances they bear only a passing acquaintance with the properly executed dish. In knowledgeable restaurants, additional lime, fish sauce, chili pepper, and rice vinegar are optional and offered by way of condiments.  No self-respecting cook would put peanut butter, ketchup, teriyaki sauce or shredded coconut in pad Thai. To those who claim that this is fusion, innovation or artistic individualism, I can assure you that it is not.

The use of chopsticks is not a Thai custom. Thai food is eaten with a fork (left hand) and a spoon (right hand); there is no need for a knife as food is served in bite-sized morsels, which are forked into the spoon and fed into the mouth. Thai meals typically consist of a single dish, or rice with several complementary shared dishes served concurrently.

Thai curries (kaeng, also written as gaeng) are unique because they are made with fresh aromatic roots, leaves and herbs, whereas Indian curries (masalas) depend on combining dry spice mixtures. All curry pastes vary widely depending on the tastes and techniques of the cook. Green is the hottest among all the Thai curries and cilantro root is commonly used in its preparation due to its intense flavour. Red is the original preparation and yellow is the mildest of the curry preparations.

Locally, there is a myriad of Thai, Viet-Thai, and Laos-Thai and other Asian-inspired restaurants. Due to the popularity of Canadian-Asian food, lots of Chinese restaurants pay homage to the Thai genre. Thai culinary repertoire of Thailand, like Korea’s, has spicing techniques and aromatic infusions of curry-inspired recipes that are suggestive of India. That is just scratching surface of the Thai culinary canon. If you want to know how good the restaurant is, you only need check out the pad Thai.


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