Ask Peter: Pad thai
Would you be able to tell me how to make a pad thai-style sauce. There are many variations — some of them very complicated, others very simple. I have played around with them but can’t quite get it right. What combo of ingredients would you use? Margaret
I agree with you — there are so many variations on pad thai and, for a street food dish, which is really what it is, it’s incredibly complicated. Basically it’s a noodle stir-fry tossed with various proteins, peanuts, herbs and a sweet and sour sauce made from tamarind, palm sugar, lime juice and fish sauce (but you can use soy sauce, as you need something salty/savoury).
This sweet and sour sauce is key as it brings all the other components together — which include cooked flat rice noodles, dried shrimps and fresh prawns, tofu, often chicken, beaten eggs, chillies, garlic, chives or spring onions (and often both), Thai basil, coriander and mint, bean sprouts and chopped peanuts.
There are simple recipes but these won’t necessarily be anywhere near what you’d expect if you were actually in Thailand. Of course, it’s not always easy to get all the right ingredients, and I’d suggest that winter in Southland or even the Manawatu will likely not have your local greengrocer stocking up what is grown in Thailand all year round.
So, I’m going to assume you’ve got some of the ingredients but not all. Make the sweet and sour sauce first. You need to create something in balance and for the sour you should use tamarind water which is made by mixing tamarind paste with water then straining out any lumps.
If you don’t have this, then use lime or lemon juice and, at a squeeze, a diluted white or red wine vinegar (balsamic will be way too off-piste even for me). Mix this with some sugar. If you don’t have palm sugar use any brown sugar, or at a pinch white sugar. Then season with fish sauce or soy sauce, or even salt.
Add chopped fresh chillies, or use chilli sauce — make it as hot as you like. Mix in half a cup of chunky peanut butter or chopped roasted peanuts — their texture is essential so don’t use smooth peanut butter. This will now resemble a gloopy paste, which is perfect. If it’s too solid, dilute with boiling water.
Cook your noodles (ideally flat rice noodles) but you could try something else, just don’t overcook them, then drain. If you have bean sprouts, blanch them in boiling water for 10 seconds before draining. If you don’t have them, use green beans — blanched for 30 seconds only.
Caramelise finely chopped shallots or onion in sesame oil in a wok (or wide frying pan), adding chopped garlic and ginger towards the end — you want punchy flavours. Remove from the wok.
Fry sliced chicken in oil until almost cooked. Add chopped prawn tails and briefly cook. If you have dried shrimps, add them to the pan and cook until golden before adding the chicken, then remove this mixture from the wok. With the wok still hot, add a little more sesame oil, a packet or so of chopped tofu and cook for 30 seconds to heat up and colour slightly, tossing frequently.
Pour in a couple of beaten eggs and count to 10, stirring once. Add the noodles and chicken prawn mix. Toss well and cook until heated through. Add the peanut sweet and sour sauce, the bean sprouts and generous amounts of freshly picked herbs (basil, mint, coriander, shredded chives and sliced spring onions) and cook another minute, tossing well.
Divide among warmed bowls and serve with wedges of lime or lemon and extra chopped fresh chilli or chilli sauce. Hopefully this will be what you’re after.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to email@example.com and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.