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Pad Thai--is it an authentically Thai dish?

Is pad Thai an authentically Thai dish? (And, I'm sorry--I know the word "authentic" is kind of a hot button word on this board, but I'm not sure how else to phrase my question)...The reason I ask is I’ve seen several disparaging comments over the years here on Chowhound along the lines of "That restaurant is just for the pad Thai crowd" in various threads where people are debating the authenticity of various Thai restaurants.

Maybe I have selective memory, but I swear I’ve seen pad Thai on the menu of every Thai restaurant I’ve been to, I think, both in the U.S. and elsewhere. I think I’ve seen a recipe for pad Thai in pad in every Thai recipe book I’ve ever consulted.

I’ve sort of come to the conclusion over the years that pad Thai is a kind of Thai comfort food, maybe like chili might be in the U.S., where everyone’s mom and grandma has a recipe of her own for it and the recipe varies from region to region and even house to house. Is this the case or is it “tourist” fare only?

Thank you!

~TDQ

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  1. It is an authentic dish but I've read on several Thai cooking websites that pad thai is just a common street vendor type meal.

    44 Replies
    1. re: moymoy

      Yes, you will see pad thai served on the streets quite frequently. Pad thai in Thailand is different than the pad thai served in the States. Most of the pad thai restaurants here like to add ketchup. In Thailand, the red color comes from the chili pepper and tamarind.

      1. re: Miss Needle

        It is an authentic Thai dish, but seems to be particularly popular in the US (as is Thai iced tea). I noticed that at Thai restaurants in Asia, pad see ew and rad na are the more commonly-ordered noodle dishes.

        1. re: Miss Needle

          Maybe the ketchup is a regional thing. I don't really recall seeing ketchup in my pad thai around these parts.

          1. re: jgg13

            Check out chez pim's blog. She's got a great blog about pad thai.

            1. re: jgg13

              I know for a fact that the Thai restaurant I used to go to in MO (when I lived there) did NOT use ketchup in the Pad Thai. That woman was a stickler for perfection.

              But if other Thai restaurants are doing that, maybe that's why the Pad Thai doesn't taste good to me at most other restaurants.

              1. re: ZenSojourner

                then be careful in thailand. i've seen it used there.

                1. re: thew

                  i've seen ketchup used in pad thai on tv -- "road trip with todd english" -- in a street stall in thailand, too.

                  i've also seen tommy tang use ketchup in thai food but not in pad thai:
                  http://www.cyber-kitchen.com/recipes/...

                  here in a dish with sweet chili sauce, he uses tomato paste. http://newasiancuisine.com/381-tommy-...
                  ~~~~
                  i'd say ketchup is a shortcut step for the combo of sugar, vinegar and tomato paste....

                  1. re: thew

                    Yeah. Not likely to be going to Thailand.

                    I've been told that it does get used there, but it's not part of the original Pad Thai "recipe".

                    I'm pretty sure that Pad Thai was "invented" by some high government official as an "authentic Thai" replacement for the chinese noodles that were popular as street food at the time. A kind of nationalist inspired culinary creation. It didn't use catsup (and wouldn't have) at the time because catsup would not have been an "authentic Thai" ingredient.

                    I still think it (catsup in Pad Thai) tastes funny. Maybe that's just because I learned to like the dish without it.

                    *Edit*

                    Heck the info about the origins of Pad Thai is right here in this thread. See the post:

                    klyeoh on Feb 27, 2008 10:37PM

                2. re: jgg13

                  Me either. And the thought is nauseating. But then, there's pad thai and pad thai. It varies a great deal for some reason. I think it's better from hole in the walls that have been around for awhile and frankly trendy, overpriced newer places that overlap their asians anyway don't impress me. And I bet they don't even stock ketchup in these places. Yeech.

                  1. re: Whosyerkitty

                    i don't find it nauseating, as others have mentioned it hits a lot of the flavor notes in one bundle that would show up in the dish. i just haven't really seen it used.

                    Also, I think when i posted that way back when, I was picturing miss needle's post as saying that people literally put ketchup on their pad thai as a condiment, which is very, very different.

                3. re: Miss Needle

                  I've heard about the ketchup factor but luckily I haven't personally encountered it yet.

                  1. re: moymoy

                    lol

                    ketchup may be to substitute MSG hihihihihi

                    1. re: Echotraveler

                      Re ketchup in Asian cooking: I used to order a wonderful shrimp dish at a Chinese restaurant---mysterious sauce, sort of sweet-sour-spicy. His kid, who went to the high school where I taught, spilled the beans and told me his father put a whole cup of ketchup in every serving.

                  2. re: Miss Needle

                    Ketchup?? Eeew. So glad that isn't an addition at the Thai joints I've been to in New England.

                    1. re: happybellynh

                      Actually, I lived as a child in Bangkok, and our Thai cook would add a dab of ketchup to both fried rice and Pad Thai - and I don't think she was doing it "just for us".

                      1. re: happybellynh

                        Belly Dude, I've thankfully not encountered ketchup either , but ketchup is a SE asian condiment. Conimex makes a pretty good Indonesian ketchup that I use w/ nasi goring or is it nasi bami, oh well it's good stuff.

                        1. re: Passadumkeg

                          You're right, passadumkeg - in fact, the word "ketchup" itself was adopted by the English from the Malay word "kichap" during the British-Malaya colonial days. The Malays use "kichap" in reference to soy sauce, fish sauce & other sauces - they themselves adopted the word from the Chinese, who used "kee chiap" to refer to fish sauce.

                          1. re: klyeoh

                            But in Chinese, the translation of ketchup translates directly as "tomato sauce"... which is too much of a coincidence to also refer to a fish sauce which I was taught to have a different name (and I would expect to contain the fish character "yu" in some sort of way).

                            1. re: Blueicus

                              Well the "ketchup" sauce in Pad Thai is synonymous with the infamous Chinese dish "sweet and sour pork" (goo lo yok). The "fusion" style for sweet and sour pork and shortcut way is to use ketchup. But the old school way, requiring a bit more effort, is to use haw flakes (chinese cranberries if you will), and melt them down to create the more natural sweet and sour flavor.

                              But if you want to boil it down, the "ke" in Cantonese pronounciation of keh-jup, is the same character (if I am not mistaken) for eggplant (keh-ji)

                              1. re: K K

                                I used to eat a lot of haw flakes as a kid. I can see how Hawthornes can be the tart base for a sweet and sour sauce.

                              2. re: Blueicus

                                Hey, Blueicus, you are right - the current Chinese translation does sound like a direct reference to "tomato sauce"! But I think it's more a case of incidental "sound alike", very convenient as a result too.

                                I think the use of "tomato" ketchup was introduced to the Chinese by the British/Europeans.

                          2. re: happybellynh

                            Iron Chef Chen used ketchup in his highlighted Szechwan chili prawns dish...

                          3. re: Miss Needle

                            In some Middle Eastern dishes ketchup can be substituted for tamarind since both have that sweet tart taste, even if they are very different. For the home cook, tamarind was not as accessible here in the US until more recently. I still need to search out my local Asian or Middle Eastern markets for it. I'm not sure I could find it at my local big box grocery store.

                            1. re: Miss Needle

                              I recently checked with someone who works at one of Honolulu's best Thai restaurants. He was quite unabashed about the fact that they put Ketchup in their Pad Thai. I was stunned. He just laughed. Apparently it is pretty much an acceptable ingredient - even in Thailand where the chef is from.

                              1. re: KaimukiMan

                                I hope you aren't referring to that Thai place on Ala Moana near the Double Tree... I got suckered into the place as many local tourism concierges & promotors dubbed that chef as the best in Modern Thai cuisine... God the food was mediocre and has such a big price tag.

                                1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                  I assume you are referring to Singha. When I first went there some years ago it was pretty decent, but has been dumbed down considerably. The place I was referring to is Keo's, a few blocks down the street on Kuhio at Kuamoo. I am willing to agree that it is not as good as it was when it was on Kapahulu, but it is still good thai food, much better than you will find in a lot of places.

                                  1. re: KaimukiMan

                                    Yup I was referring to Singha... just down the street from the Hilton.

                                    1. re: KaimukiMan

                                      If Keo's is the place where you state the Chef is from Thailand than I have to interject that Keo is not Thai and as far as I can tell from his bio he never spent any time there. He was born in Laos and immigrated to the US at age 15. My (Thai) wife and I lived in Bangkok for 12 years and then 3 in Honolulu. Our opinion was that the Keo's chain served quite edible food but it was not authenic Thai. On the other hand, our favorite Thai place in that era was Rama Thai on Kapahulu above the zoo. The cook there was a Lao who was married to a Puerto Rican guy. Now she could make Thai food! Keo's bio below.

                                      http://www.keosthaicuisine.com/bio.html

                                      1. re: ThaiNut

                                        I really really miss Rama Thai. My current favorite is Pae Thai on King St.

                                        1. re: ThaiNut

                                          Keo's is not authentic Thai. Keo actually combined both Lao and Thai elements and then Americanized them and is promoting his fusion as "authentic" Thai cuisine. Some Thai restaurants across the U.S. have adopted some of his dishes/creations, but those dishes are definitely not actual Thai dishes so I agree with ThaiNut that Keo's is not authentic Thai.

                                          1. re: ThaiNut

                                            True. The rice noodles themselves are not native to Southeast Asia, but each country has created their own dishes from those rice noodles and can be considered "authentic" dishes because of how they're prepared.

                                            In Lao cuisine, our stir-fried rice stick noodles are called Khua Mee, Pad Mee Lao, or simply Pad Lao for short. The word "mee" suggests its Chinese origins as far as the rice stick noodles themselves are concerned, but the actual dish is an "authentic" Lao dish. I realize that in Chinese "Mi"/"Mee" only refers to yellow egg noodles or something like that, but the term is used very loosely in Laos.

                                            Similarly, Pad Thai is also an "authentic" Thai dish despite its noodles also having Chinese origins.

                                            Cambodia also has its own version of stir-fried rice stick noodles and supposedly Vietnam does as well, but I'm not positive about Vietnam.

                                            Can anyone here confirm if Vietnam has a stir-fried rice stick noodle dish?

                                            1. re: yummyrice

                                              One of the few pad thais I like is from a shop in Kanchanaburi. They don't use noodles, unless you ask for them.

                                               
                                              1. re: Curt the Soi Hound

                                                if they dont use noodles i dont think it's pad thai

                                                1. re: thew

                                                  Hey, aren't you the one who's always saying food evolves and the definitions change with it? Someone could call that authentic pad thai at some point.

                                                  1. re: chowser

                                                    and when that change actually occurs and is in actual usage, i'll probably embrace it.

                                                    1. re: thew

                                                      Change has got to start somewhere, even if it's Kanchanaburi.;-)

                                    2. re: Miss Needle

                                      I believe pad thai is made just like how fried rice is made in most Chinese households; it's just a way to use up leftovers.

                                      As for ketchup being used for either of those dishes, it's just a quick, easy, and cheap substitute for tomato paste and used more predominately in North America because everyone here loves ketchup. I for one don't mind a little squirt of ketchup just to give a vinegary sweet flavour to dishes, but generally only use it if I have nothing else. And I really hate when it's used in large quantities, as in most pad thai dishes here in N. American restaurants; it just disgusting like that IMHO.

                                      1. re: xianzhong

                                        Totally agree with you, xianzhong.

                                        "Real" pad thai uses a mixture of tamarind juice and palm sugar for the sour-sweet taste. Tomato ketchup is a convenient substitute, I guess.

                                        1. re: xianzhong

                                          "And I really hate when it's used in large quantities, as in most pad thai dishes here in N. American restaurants"
                                          ~~~~~
                                          xianzhong, your statement is pretty broad.

                                          i haven't had *any* pad thai here in the u.s. where ketchup is used in large quantities. (and i make pad thai myself, but prefer pad kee mao). i've eaten pad thai all over d.c. metro-northern virginia and in florida. where have you eaten it that uses so much ketchup?

                                          1. re: alkapal

                                            I live about an hour southwest of Toronto and almost all but like two of the Thai or Viet-Thai restaurants in my area have pad thai dishes that don't use ketchup at all. In Toronto itself maybe half the restaurants I've seen had pad thai with relatively heavy ketchup use and many of my friends and relatives from different cities all over the U.S. eat pad thai with a lot of ketchup, even friends that have traveled Thailand themselves have eaten pad thai with loads of ketchup; most likely restaurants specifically for tourists.

                                            It's just like how North American style Chinese restaurants use a lot of ketchup on dishes like Sweet and Sour Pork. The original "authentic" recipe calls for just a little bit of tomato paste but the way it's done here it's basically pure ketchup with like some sugar, vinegar and soy sauce.

                                            I personally don't like all that ketchup and I've actually never ordered pad thai (or sweet and sour pork) in my life, I'd only eat some when other people order it. I can't fault a restaurant for cooking dishes that way if they sells, and boy does it sell at a lot of these restaurants.

                                            1. re: xianzhong

                                              ketchup use in thailand is NOT only found in tourist oriented places. they like ketchup in thailand. they use it.

                                          2. re: xianzhong

                                            For years we have gone to Brookside Thai in Bloomfield, NJ and the food is great. Pad Thai does not seem to have ketchup and is the best Pad Thai I have had. I did have Pad Thai at another restaurant and right a way I said to my wife, "This really tastes tomatoey." She agreed. I did not make the ketchup connection, but on hearing this I realize that it was ketchup I tasted. I will stick with Brookside in the future.

                                          3. re: Miss Needle

                                            Ketchup? I have never exprienced that in pad thai.

                                        2. Pad thai is authentic, but mostly served as a street and night market food.

                                          1. When I see someone refer to the 'pad thai crowd' (or something similar), I don't read that as a condemnation of the dish itself but rather referring to the folks that stick with one of the most accessible items on the menu and never move beyond it.

                                            6 Replies
                                            1. re: jgg13

                                              That's how I interpreted that as well. To me, pad Thai is akin to fried rice (which you'll also see on many/most Thai menus, and I've seen a lot of them).

                                              So it's both authentic and accessible. Hey, if it gets people in the door, maybe they'll try more adventurous offerings. One thing about Thai food, it LOOKS good -- bright colors, etc.

                                              1. re: jgg13

                                                Ah, this makes sense to me, thank you.

                                                And thank you everyone, for your comments in this thread. All very interesting and educational.

                                                ~TDQ

                                                1. re: jgg13

                                                  Right. That's how I meant it when I used it the other day. Also, pad Thai is a dish that's very easy to "dumb down" for American palates -- a lot of pad Thai in American restaurants is overly sweet, peanutty and gooey, without the hot/tangy/herbal/briney contrasts characteristic of good Thai cooking.

                                                  1. re: jgg13

                                                    It's also a pretty safe dish for people like me who, unfortunately, has next to no tolerance for spicy food. Thai menus are like minefields to me lol I usually stick to pad thai, pho, or pad see ew.

                                                      1. re: spellweaver16

                                                        I like spicy, but I like to have one non spicy dish to eat to lessen the burn as I eat Three bites curry, one or two of PT They actually mix well chewed together too.. We usually get Rad Na or Pad Thai for that purpose plus they taste good. Pad Kee Moa we love also, but that is a spicy noodle dish so when we get that plus a curry or chili dish then it is a hot night on the town.

                                                    1. I'd just like to add that pad thai's been bastardized to a huge extent in the US. Such that many of the "pad thai crowd" assume the dish is basically "peanut sauce noodles." Much of Thai cuisine's been misapprehended and blended into what's more Malaysian or Indonesian. Real pad thai may contain catsup ;), but it does not swim in "peanut sauce" of any kind.

                                                      12 Replies
                                                      1. re: aelph

                                                        I respectfully disagree, even the most Americanized thai restaurants I've been to maintain the thai heritage. Other than the fact that curry is a common denominator in all SE Asian cuisine, I see no blending.

                                                        I've taken a great interest in thai cuisine lately and have been reading many thai cooking websites. Pad thai is no big deal to the Thai's, it's a simple food eaten on the go as a snack, from what I gather they find it humorous that Americans have taken such a liking to it, they by no means look at pad thai as the symbol of their national cuisine nor are they offended that it's become ubiquitous in America as quintessentially thai.

                                                        1. re: moymoy

                                                          When I was in Thailand the two dishes I found in most every "coffee shop" menu were congee in the morning and pad thai in the afternoon. But I also found pad thai to be more of a blue collar food than something that people would eat for a special occasion. In fact, I don't ever recall eating it at one of the big, glorious hours long meals we had at night with the people we were working with over there. The rule of thumb for most every dinner, as far as I could tell, was one dish for everyone at the table, plus one more dish and a big fish prepared in some incomprehensible, amazingly delicious way. Pad Thai was a fairly common street food, but there was always a huge selection available, including the most delectable roasted bugs that you can imagine.

                                                          1. re: moymoy

                                                            You misunderstand me. When I mention "blending" of Thai/Malaysian/Indonesian cuisines I'm addressing a general American misapprehension of Thai cuisine: namely, that it incorporates "peanut sauce" as a main component. I challenge you to go to any run-of-the-mill Thai restaurant in the Midwest and find a pad thai that's not heavy on the peanut component. That's where the Indonesian/Malaysian misapprehension comes in, or look at what Rachel Ray and those of her ilk concoct as "Thai" pizza..."peanut sauce" can be found in Indonesian satays and and the like...not pad thai.

                                                            1. re: aelph

                                                              I'd just note that I'm from the midwest, and I've never seen pad thai with peanut sauce. Topped with crushed peanuts, yes, but no sauce.

                                                              1. re: Terrieltr

                                                                Might I add: Food Network Recipe TGIF challenge Pad Thai burgers(yeech) included "peanut sauce."

                                                                Perhaps it's a more intimate misapprehension in the Midwest(I'm talking outside of the major metropolitan areas)...that somehow tamarind and crushed peanuts are mistaken as "peanut sauce" by
                                                                undiscerning diners. I'm writing from Indianapolis which has abysmal Thai food and the independent weeklies routinely cover pad thai palaces referring to the pad thai as having "peanut sauce"...and being "spicy," but that's for another debate. I cook leagues better Thai at home(thank you David Thompson) than can be found in the restaurants hereabouts(early on I had a mussaman curry that looked and tasted like it came out of an Indian kitchen...literally, it was like a bad tikka masala) and recently moved from Chicago which boasts some of the best Thai cuisines in the country...I know from where I speak.

                                                                1. re: Terrieltr

                                                                  I've never seen it either.

                                                                  Aelph, what are some of your favorite recipes from David Thompson. I've had "Thai Food" for some time and have yet to delve into; it's about time. I've explored other authors ("Hot Sour Salty Sweet" and "Cracking the Coconut") and am interested in why Thompson is your favorite.

                                                                  1. re: Rubee

                                                                    The Thompson is my favorite because it's all inclusive: a little history, a little sociology, and, best of all, it's a "Larousse" of royal Thai fare(the Thai cooking gathered in the funerary books of nineteenth century Thai female cooks in royal houses). He doesn't dumb down the dishes and doesn't offer substitutions, he assumes you can(with a little investigation) find what you need. If anything, it's a seminal document distinguishing itself by virtue of it's unassailability(he's extraordinarily thorough). It's through Thompson that I learned to appreciate cilantro root(a small thing, I know...but a revelation to one who until reading Arharn Thai hadn't even considered the possibility). As for others not encountering "peanut sauce" or the adoration of the peanut being applied to Ameri-Thai, well, that's awesome! I wish it were different from what I've encountered outside of the many wonderful, educational Thai restaurants I've been exposed to in Chicago and, surprisingly, New York(well...Queens, anyway)...I have not had Thai in LA tho' I understand it can be as good(if not better) than Chicago's lauded restaurants. It irritates me because Thai is one of my favorite cuisines: I don't care about pad thai(tho' I like a well-made "vermicelli" pad thai "omelet"), and I really dislike it that Thai food is considered across the board "spicy." I just don't know what to make of that.

                                                                    1. re: aelph

                                                                      You've sold me - I'm going to start reading it tonight. Yes, I agree cilantro root is a key component, as is the use of a mortar and pestle. I can't cook Thai without it!

                                                                  2. re: Terrieltr

                                                                    I'm also in the midwest and I've usually seen pad thai as you've seen it--topped with crushed peanuts but no actual peanut sauce. Interestingly, one of our local thai restaurants recently added a "peanut sauce pad thai" to the menu in addition to the regular pad thai. I've had it and while it's tasty, I understand that it's not "the way it's meant to be."

                                                                    1. re: rweater

                                                                      Yes, pad Thai's topped with crushed peanuts, and NOT peanut sauce (!!) . I also find pad Thai in many places in the US tend to be soggier than the ones you find in Thailand.

                                                                      BTW, there's also another "typical" Thai dish which you'd find in most cafes/eateries in Thailand called "American fried rice". It's fried rice, studded with raisins & flavored with tomato ketchup (hence, giving it a reddish tinge), served with a sunny-side-up fried egg, fried chicken & cocktail sausages.

                                                                  3. re: aelph

                                                                    The reason Thai=peanut sauce in the US is not because of pad thai. It's because of satay sauce. And since there are so many more Thai restaurants in the US than Malaysian/Indonesia, satay is thought of as a Thai food.

                                                                  4. re: moymoy

                                                                    So Pad Thai to Thailand is like Pizza to America.

                                                                2. To add something - not many Thais can actually make Pad Thai. It's not something people cook at home often. It's street food, something eaten as a snack or meal for under a dollar out on the sidewalk.

                                                                  So, a dish which everyone's mom + grandma might have their own recipe and varies from region to region might be Thailand's most famous dish (here in Asia and within Thailand anyway), Tom Yum. Tom Yum is a spicy sour soup and it really does have a hundred variations. And cooks can talk for hours on the best way to make it.