Do you successfully create this popular Thai dish at home or do you opt for the takeaway version? From choosing the right noodles to the essential garnishes, this is a tricky one to master.
Pad thai (or the rather cooler phat thai, as the official transliteration has it) is a global ambassador for the glories of Thai food; these simple stir-fried rice noodles are almost certainly one of the best-known examples of Thai cuisine worldwide. Expats claim to use it as a bellwether for the quality of a restaurant: if the kitchen gets the pad thai right, they probably know how to cook.
Quite a claim for a dish that's not neither very Thai nor very traditional - the dish's full name, kway teow pad thai, or "stir-fried rice noodles, Thai-style" hints at its probable southern Chinese origins (kway teow apparently means rice noodles in the Hokkien dialect), and it's thought to have been popularised, and possibly invented, by Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram in the 1940s as part of his campaign to foster a sense of national identity.
According to an article in the journal Gastromica, Thais were supposed to unite behind this noodle dish - and unite they did, for good reason. It's quick street food, a little spicy, a little sweet, and utterly delicious. Who would have thought your takeaway favourite had such an interesting history?
Like many apparently simple dishes, pad thai is quick, but not necessarily easy. Indeed, Leela Punyaratabandhu has a whole series on the basics of pad thai on her excellent blog, She Simmers, starting with picking the appropriate pan. So, this is clearly a recipe that deserves some careful attention.
Punyaratabandhu recommends a large, flat pan for optimal results: the larger surface area encourages evaporation, which is "key to creating noodle strands that are well-seasoned and entirely cooked through while retaining a bit of chewiness". Everyone else uses a wok, which, in the absence of a such a large flat pan seems a good bet: the steep sides make it easier to keep the noodles off the heat while cooking the eggs and prawns on the base.
Bangkok-born Pim Techamuanvivit gives more useful advice when she breaks the news that it's pointless to try to make more than two portions at the same time: any more will: "I can guarantee ... result in clumps of oily, sticky noodle unfit for human consumption." This is certainly true: it's hard enough to cook everything at the same time as it is without struggling to shift it around the pan.
These are of paramount importance - pad thai is a noodle dish, after all, and as Punyaratabandhu observes: "When the noodles are badly cooked, they invariably drag everything else down with them." You need what are often called "rice sticks" - dried thin, flat noodles known as sen lek, 3-5mm wide. Which, it turns out, are incredibly difficult to cook properly.
First of all, they require soaking before use. Rick Stein uses boiling water, which counts as cooking in my view. Any kind of hot water is apparently a no-no where the purists are concerned, even blanching the soaked noodles as David Thompson suggests in Thai Street Food. He reckons it prevents them from clumping together, but Punyaratabandhu claims this is the "most guaranteed way of getting [them] to clump up", and I agree. (They're prone to clumping whatever you do. The best way to stop them doing this is to keep them moving, and make sure they don't dry out in the pan.)
Soak the noodles in cold water until, as Punyaratabandhu says, they're soft enough to wind easily around your finger - "like very al dente pasta" as Techamuanvivit puts it.
The problem I have, however, is cooking the noodles: three or four attempts end up inedibly chewy. The best solution seems to be to add a splash of water to the pan before adding the sauce, as Rosemary Brissenden suggests in South East Asian Food. It's vitally important to test one before deciding the dish is done. Experts may be able to feel the change through their spatulas, according to Punyaratabandhu, but I'm assuming that, like me, you're at the beginner stage here.
Stein tosses his noodles with sesame oil in what's presumably another attempt to forestall the clumping problem. Not only is the flavour out of place here, but it stops the noodles absorbing the pad thai sauce.
Strictly speaking, there's no such thing as "pad thai sauce" - at least, you're unlikely to find one in an oriental supermarket, but in Thailand, you will see many vendors using a pre-prepared brown sludge. Punyaratabandhu, Techamuanvivit and Thompson all recommend doing likewise: as Techamuanvivit says, for an amateur, seasoning the dish in the wok dooms you to failure, because by the time you have added the tamarind, then the fish sauce, then the palm sugar, "your noodle turns gooey, your protein done to the texture of a rubber eraser".
That's just what Stein and Brissenden do however, and, apart from the stress of tipping in three separate bowls while keeping everything moving in the wok, it's impossible to adjust the flavour. It's also best to heat the three principle ingredients, tamarind, palm sugar and fish sauce, together as Punyaratabandhu and Techamuanvivit do, to melt the sugar. You can then taste it and adjust until you achieve your perfect balance of sweet, salty and sour.
To be fair, Brissenden has other fish to fry: her pad thai has a base of pureed shallot, garlic and chilli, which gives it a sweet heat. I find the shallots and chillis too dominant though. Such condiments are not unusual: Punyaratabandhu uses a vivid red shrimp paste in oil, which, she says, is common, though not entirely traditional in Thailand. It's too much for my timid tastes: the fish sauce and the volley of tiny dried shrimp are quite enough seafood for me.
Stein, who has taken his recipe from a vendor at Bangkok's Ghost Gate, adds sweet chilli sauce. It's too sweet and too gloopy. Better to do as Techamuanvivit suggests and add a pinch of chilli powder to the sauce until it suits your palate.
It's possible to customise pad thai with whatever you like, but prawns and firm tofu seem to be the most popular choice. According to Techamuanvivit, in some parts of Bangkok tiny dried shrimp are the only protein some customers can afford, and they feature in every single recipe I try, whatever else is in there. They add a subtle fishy savouriness.
Stein sautees his prawn heads and shells in oil before cooking the dish, but I can't taste the difference: probably because everything tastes of sweet chilli sauce. Eggs are also near ubiquitous: Thompson suggests duck eggs for authenticity, but again, once they're scrambled, I defy anyone to taste the difference.
Extras and garnishes
Garlic is always welcome, but I don't think the shallots some use are necessary - the crunchy Chinese chives offer enough onion flavour, and a more interesting texture. Punyaratabandhu is very keen on ripe banana blossoms as well, but I draw a blank on that one. Perhaps it can't be a perfect pad thai without them, but I reckon it's pretty good all the same.
Perfect beginner's pad thai
120g 2-3mm wide flat rice sticks
60ml fish sauce
60ml tamarind water (you can use tamarind concentrate, thinned with a little water)
60g palm sugar
Pinch of chilli powder, to taste
80ml groundnut or vegetable oil
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
100g extra-firm tofu, chopped into small cubes
8 large prawns
2 large eggs, ready cracked
25g preserved salted radish, chopped
1 tbsp small dried shrimp
4 stalks Chinese chives, chopped
50g roasted peanuts, roughly chopped
Lime wedges, chilli flakes, fish sauce and sugar, to garnish
Soak the rice sticks in cold water for about half an hour until pliable but al dente. Drain.
Meanwhile, make the sauce by combining the fish sauce, tamarind and palm sugar in a small pan. Heat gently to dissolve the sugar and taste - add more of any of the ingredients as you wish. Season with chilli to taste. Set aside.
Lay out all the ingredients within easy reach of the hob in the order they'll be used. Put a wok on a high heat and add half the oil. Add the garlic, stir fry for a few seconds, then add the noodles and a splash of water. Stir fry until they're drying out, then add the sauce. Fry until they are almost soft enough to eat (they should be slightly chewy).
Push the noodles to the side of the wok and add the rest of the oil. Fry the tofu and prawns until the tofu is beginning to colour, then push to the side and add the eggs. Pierce the yolks and, when starting to set on the bottom, scramble.
Stir through the noodles, and add the radish, dried shrimp, beansprouts, chives and peanuts. Stir fry until well combined, then serve with the garnishes for people to add as they wish.
Pad thai - your favourite Thai dish, or one of the many things best left in Bangkok? What are your top tips for getting it right, and what do you like to customise yours with?
Felicity Cloake's perfect pad thai. Photograph: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian