It's Local Adaptation, Dummy (ASIAN 258 Blog on Pad Thai)
Updated: Mar 18, 2020
We all know its charms: chewy rice noodles line the plastic takeout box, drenched in sweet and sour goodness. There’s a touch of tang, usually delivered in a light pink sauce. Maybe a few slices of chicken or prawn, paired with scrambled eggs. Then comes the crunch: raw mung bean sprouts topped with toasted peanuts and a wedge of lime. I like to say that Pad Thai is to millennials what sweet-n'-sour pork was for my generation. But I may be wrong. You Gen Z also look upon it as comfort food.
If you believe Quartz’s Roberto Ferdman, pad Thai deserves to be sold at a restaurant called No Thai, Ann Arbor’s favorite chain. That’s because the dish really isn’t Thai -- even if we Yankees associate the 12,000+ Thai restaurants around the world with it. The fried noodles, Ferdman asserts, are actually Chinese. Our favorite food turns out to be an imposter. Hence the title, “The Strange and Potentially Stolen Origins of Pad Thai.”
But should we regard pad Thai as illegitimate? Did Thai cooks really just steal the recipe from the Chinese and pass it off as their own? This begs the question what it means for something (or someone) to be Thai, or Chinese -- or, for that matter, really anything.
An answer will proceed less from the facts than in their interpretation. The origins of the dish are clear enough from the name and the star ingredient.
The Thai name for pad Thai, kway teow pad, makes no bones about its Chinese origins. Kway Teow is a Chinese loan word, based on the southern Chinese pronunciation of guǒtiáo 粿條 (strips of rice cakes).
According to Mr. Ferdman, the name matches the reality. There’s really nothing Thai about the dish: not the rice noodles and certainly not the preserved radish. Only the chilis are truly “Thai,” Ferdman says without a hint of irony. If you are in my class, please laugh: you really should be thinking, Columbian Exchange. But the reporter must be forgiven. He has not taken ASIAN 258, so I do not yet haunt his every meal.
So what did the Chinese contribute to the dish? Quartz is not entirely wrong. Rice noodles are, in fact, a common feature of Southern Chinese cooking. Made by grinding dried rice into flour, rice noodles represented the southern Chinese solution to wheat shortages. Wheat does not grow well in hot and humid climates (for which sub-tropical South China does not lack). So cooks made noodles from what was readily available in a classic example of local adaptation (i.e., tweaking recipes or culinary products to reflect the local palate, resources, or cultural matrix). But rice noodles involve a more laborious process than their wheat-based counterparts. You first have to make a batter, then you steam that batter in thin layers, cut those layers into strips, and dry.
Rice noodles represents an art form in Southern China. In the Southwest province of Yunnan, they go by different names: fine vermicelli are mixian 米線 (“rice threads”), whereas the thicker, chunkier ones are erkuai 餌块. In the Canton area, rice noodles come in different forms. Flat noodles shaped like fettuccine go by hefen 河粉. The tender rolls encasing pork and shrimp have a strange name: changfen 腸粉 (“intestine powder”). Ignore: they are heavenly when seasoned with roasted sesame paste: a legacy of the Silk Road.
So how did a Cantonese rice noodle make it to Thailand? In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, scores of southern Chinese men left a crowded and war-torn homeland. Not surprisingly, young men like my grandpa sought their fortunes elsewhere. Some crossed the Pacific, living in California, Mexico, and Peru. Others stayed closer to home. Large Chinese communities sprung up in the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, as well as Vietnam and Thailand.
Thailand was a popular destination for Chinese migrants. Less than fifteen percent of Thais call themselves Chinese today. But scholars estimate that up to forty percent of the Thai population is of Chinese heritage. This would make Thailand the home of one of the world’s largest and most powerful Chinese diasporas. The founder of the Thai royal family was part Chinese. So are many members of the Thai business and political elite. This includes the stunning Yingluck Shinawatra (the prime minister ousted by a military junta in 2017 and now a proud citizen of Serbia).
But don’t forget Plaek Pibulsonggram, or Phibun. Phibun is today best known as the fascist prime minister who championed pad Thai during World War II. He designated the stir-fried noodles the national dish of Thailand, encouraging street vendors to make the noodles and going so far as to issue a standard recipe. But Phibun was a curious figure; he put into place a number of anti-Chinese policies. His grandpa was like mine; he too was Cantonese.
Given the heavy layer of Chinese genes in the region, Thai cuisine is naturally full of influences from the Middle Kingdom. Pad Thai may be the most famous, but it is only one example of the phenomenon. The now-defunct foodie mag, Lucky Peach, ran a photo spread with gorgeous shots of Thai noodle plates a few years ago. They are mostly rice based, but not all:
Pad Macaroni (I dare you to click on this link)
Rat Na (a chicken-based dish, see below)
The last, Pad Se Ew, in fact, is a dead ringer for a classic Chinese takeout staple: beef chow fun. (I tell this to my husband, but he insists on ordering this every time he goes to No Thai).
This brings us to pad Thai: is it just a crypto-Chinese dish? Well… up to a point.
If we compare the Thai version to its Cantonese ancestor, a different story emerges. The Chinese inspiration cooked with dark soy sauce, scallions, bean sprouts, ginger, and beef. The Thai version, however, sports a very different set of flavoring agents. The soy sauce, for one thing, is MIA – the umami, in fact, comes from fish sauce (nam pla), the amber juice that left sixteenth-century Persian visitors dumb struck. This is not the only sign that Thai cooks remade the dish to their taste. If we look carefully at the ingredient list, it becomes clear that Thai cooks relied on other staples of their kitchens to produce complexity and depth. Cooks add whole dried shrimp (Chef Ryan adds dried shrimp powder). For tang, they relied upon ingredients uncommon to the Chinese kitchen: kaffir limes, galangal, and tamarind paste. All of these should ring a bell. Remember my lecture on Thai curries!
At the end of the day, I don’t think it’s fair to call pad Thai just another Chinese dish. This is like saying that my daughter Sofia is a Chinese person. Sure, pad Thai has Chinese origins. But stir-fried rice noodles are like biological organisms. They mutate, mix, and multiply as they move across time and space; along the way, they also pick up new culinary influences. Those layers of influence tell much about the resources, palates, and cultural matrixes that the dish encountered on its journey around the world.
Pad Thai, furthermore, is also not done evolving. From Bangkok to San Francisco to Mexico City: The dish’s a little different in every place. Sometimes, the distinction comes marked in the noodles. I found the rice noodles elusive in Mexico City, hiding under a bed of sprouts. Other times, it is the flavoring. The pad Thai sauce we find at the grocery store is far more corn syrup than tamarind. Other times, however, it is the source of umami. Many Americans choose to ditch the fish sauce.
Regardless of how you make it, one thing is for certain. Pad Thai’s a globe trotter, a shape shifter, a time capsule of layered influence, and ultimately an American sensation.
Chef Ryan Waddell’s Recipe for Phat Thai
4 ounces dried rice stick noodles
3 tablespoons grated palm sugar or dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons tamarind concentrate
2 tablespoons fish sauce
5 tablespoons peanut oil
1 large shallot in small dice
2 large cloves of garlic finely minced
¼ cup preserved shredded radish
6 ounces extra firm tofu diced
½ tablespoon dried shrimp powder
8 ounces large shrimp deveined or sliced chicken breast
2 eggs beaten
6 chives finely sliced
4 ounces bean sprouts
For the garnish:
Red chili powder
Crushed roasted peanuts
Yield: about 2 servings
Soak the rice noodles in warm water for about 30 minutes; they are done when you can wrap the noodle around a finger. Drain the noodles and cut into 6” lengths.
Mix the palm sugar, tamarind concentrate, and fish sauce and set aside.
Heat 3 tablespoons oil in a pan until hot under medium to high heat. Add the noodles to the pan and stir to coat the noodles. Add the sauce and stir to coat the noodles. Move the noodles to the outside of the pan. To the open area of the pan add the shallots, radish, shrimp, and tofu, and cook until the shrimp are about half cooked; move aside. Stir the noodles but keep separate. Add to the open area of the pan the beaten eggs and cook until nearly dry. At this point if the noodles are not cooked enough you can add some water and cook until desired softness is achieved.
Now mix half the bean sprouts and chives along with the egg, noodles, and shrimp mixture off the heat.
Garnish with the remaining ingredients that can be mixed on the plate to taste.