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Apr 2, 2012 11:42 PM

Pad Thai - The Non-Thai Dish That All Thai Restaurants Are Judged By

Pad Thai is a very popular dish served in almost every Thai restaurant. It's my favorite "Thai" food and I have always thought it is a Thai dish.

I never know it's actually more of Chinese food, and I bet few non-asian people know about this.
The latest issue of Gastronomica has a smart feature by Alexandra Greeley titled, simply, "Finding Pad Thai." I call the piece "smart" because it willingly accepts and promotes contradictions about Thai cuisine's most famous dish, pad Thai, which isn't really Thai at all.

First quote:

If Westerners believe that pad Thai symbolizes Thai cooking, many Thais agree. "Whenever we try Thai food," says Nick Srisawat, a native of Thailand who now oversees a large Thai restaurant group in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, "we try pad Thai first, because that is a way to judge how good a restaurant is. That's true all over the world—except in Thailand." Because pad Thai is a specialty dish in Thailand, many restaurants choose not to compete with the street-food vendors, who make and serve only pad Thai all day long and thus have perfected the recipe.

Second quote:

Pad Thai is really nothing more than a regular noodle dish, one that is not even native to Thailand. Its full name, kway teow pad Thai, hints at its possible Chinese origins; kway teow, in Chinese, refers to rice noodles. It is likely that some early version of the dish came to Thailand with settlers crossing from southern China, who brought their own recipe for fried rice noodles. Certainly the cooking style—stir-frying—is Chinese, and most food historians credit the Chinese with the invention of noodles. And, as Chombhala Chareonying, former Minister-Counsellor at the Royal Thai Embassy in Washington, D.C., points out, Thai food is basically Indo-Chinese in origin. The cooked meats and vegetables in pad Thai resemble dishes prepared by the Cantonese and Tae Chiew (Chao Zhou in Mandarin) from China's eastern Guangdong province. Nevertheless, the flavors and textures are pure Thai.

Greeley (2009) The Origins behind Pad Thai :

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  1. Well, many Asian dishes can be traced back to China, but that is not surprising because of ancient China influence, wealth and intellect. However, that is not to say Pad Thai is not Thai. Yes, the rice noodle in Pad Thai is very likely from China. Yet, tomato is from America, but that is not to say all tomato dishes are American.

    Sushi was spread from China to Japan. The same can be said for Japanese udon noodle which is most likely originated from China. Many Korean dishes and Vietnamese dishes are definitely have their roots from China.

    Today Pad Thai is not found in today China cuisine. I think that makes it unique enough not to be considered as a Chinese food/dish.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Chemicalkinetics

      I agree. There's no point writing something like this...

      1. re: Chemicalkinetics

        Pad Thai was most likely created by ethnic Chinese in Thailand though, whom control much of the businesses, restaurants, politics, etc. in that country.

        So it may be more accurate to call it a Thai-Chinese dish, like how chicken balls are a Canadian-Chinese dish and chop suey is American-Chinese, etc

      2. So by your thinking, spaghetti Bolognese is not Italian, because the noodles came by way of China and the tomato from the New World?

        Culinary reductio ad absurdum can go a long way. Best to leave it alone.

        7 Replies
        1. re: travelmad478

          The way the dish is handled and seasoned is what attributes it to a specific cuisine not where the main ingredient was developed.
          It is like saying Thai green curry is actually Mexican.

          1. re: chefj

            not really agreed, because it depends......

            for Pad Thai, I think the gelatinous and chewy texture of the rice noodles is the soul of the dish.

            1. re: Hamano

              I said the way that the "dish is handled", and it is just that ,that gives the noodles their texture.
              The way they are seasoned is pretty specific to Thailand and South East Asia, you would not find that method, presentation or seasonings in China, which was the OP's assertion.

          2. re: travelmad478

            for the dish, if the rice noodles is replaced with spaghetti and all other ingredients are the same, I think it still tastes not bad. But I am curious that you think the dish Thai food or Italian food?

            1. re: travelmad478

              "…because the noodles came by way of China …" No, they didn't. The Venetians might possibly not have had noodles in their cuisine in Marco Polo's time, but they were well-known in other parts of Italy long before that, certainly amongst the Romans.

              1. re: Will Owen

                I saw a food program on a Korean TV channel a couple fo years ago where they showed that the earliest Italian recipe for pasta (for a pregnant woman) actually pre-dated Marco Polo's departure for the Far East by a decade or so.

                The program went further to explain that the first pasta were brought to Sicily by Central Asians. I think this was discussed in another Chowhound thread before.

                1. re: klyeoh

                  I seriously doubt Macro Polo is the first European went to China. Moreover, it does not require an European to go to China to learn about noodle. Chinese silk was traded toward the West. Arabic numerals was spread to Europe without an European traveling to India. Yes, Arabic numerals are actually from India, not from Arab. The confusion comes from the fact that Europeans learned these numerals from Arabs without knowing that the Arabs learned from the Indians.

            2. I almost never order Pad Thai, except at fast food type Thai places, and even then I prefer Pad see ew. I would rather judge a Thai restaurant by the soup and fish.

              I don't think it was ever served to me in Thailand. The best thing I ate there was steamed chicken with chicken stock and rice made with the drippings from the chicken. My Thai girlfriend at the time got the tuk-tuk driver to take us to a typical restaurant that catered to Thais. Very simple, plain, and absolutely delicious.

              6 Replies
              1. re: ocshooter

                i normally judge thai places by pad see ew

                1. re: mattstolz

                  To me, pad see ew just seems like Chinese Chow Fun. Maybe I've never had really good pad see ew, but I find it to be a Chinese dish that the Thais adopted. Are there uniquely Thai flavors that SHOULD be there that I've not had yet?

                  1. re: sbp

                    Yeah, if I have to pick one, then I would definitely say Pad See Ew resumble the Chinese dish more so than Pad Thai.

                    1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                      I don't care if it is Chinese or not, I just like it better than Pad Thai. If the place makes it without smothering it in sauce, leaves the beef medium rare, and uses Chinese broccoli, then it has a chance of being a pretty decent restaurant.

                      1. re: ocshooter

                        :) I don't mean it is a bad dish. I love Pad See Ew. I was trying to get back to the original poster's point about the origin of the dish. In short, if I have to choose between "Pad Thai" and "Pad See Ew" being close to Chinese, then I will pick the latter. Nothing to do with the taste to the dish or the judgement of the restaurant (which is probably more of your point).

                  2. re: mattstolz

                    Tom Yum Goong has always been a good judge of Thai places for me. If they get the broth right and don't overcook the prawns chances are very good everything else there will be good.

                2. The thing about food is that good news (and ingredients) travel far and fast. Tomatoes, potatoes, and chocolate are some ingredients that are native to the Americas and were not known to the rest of the world except in the last few hundred years or so. Nevertheless, they have made their way into many so-called "traditional" dishes of different cuisines world-wide.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: raytamsgv

                    and chile peppers. What would Thai food be without those spicy delicious fruits from the lowlands of Brazil?

                  2. The restaurateur you quoted runs Tara Thai which has expended to a few locations in the DC area. It is run-of-the-mill Thai food, which means generally much sweeter than I'd like.

                    Take with a grain of salt the idea that Thai restaurants anywhere should be judged by their Pad Thai. Maybe from a business standpoint, But not a culinary one.

                    8 Replies
                    1. re: Steve

                      Well, I do think you CAN judge a Thai restaurant by its Pad Thai, but in my experience, most restaurants fall far short. If you find a good Pad Thai, it's a good sign. The biggest problem is run of the mill Pad Thai is horribly sweet. Almost none use preserved radish. Many use regular sugar instead of palm sugar. Or lime juice instead of tamarind for tartness. Sometimes you can't detect fish sauce. Then there is the absence of the tiny dried shrimp. Worst is ketchup as a lame substitute for shrimp paste in oil.

                      1. re: sbp

                        sbp, i think you nailed it. I love Pad Thai, but I rarely order it, because it usually sucks, as in too sweet. Also, places that will make spicy Pad Thai also raise a red flag. Just because many of us like spicy Thai food doesn't mean that we want all of our dishes to be spicy -- espcially ones like Pad Thai that are not meant to be spicy. In fact, I find that you really need a non-spicy dish to balance things out. But cloyingly sweet is not the way to go. Quality Pad Thai has an incredibly array of flavors.

                        Also, Steve is right about Tara Thai -- it's pretty ordinary but damn, those are some beautiful restaurants.

                        1. re: sbp

                          But here's the thing: Pad Thai is always the safe choice at a Thai restaurant, so if they are going to 'dumb down' a dish, that will be the first one to lose its pedigree.

                          1. re: Steve

                            So true. I can enjoy most dishes on a menu and find that the pad Thai is inedible to me.

                            1. re: Steve

                              True - though a restaurant that won't dumb down a Pad Thai is probably going to do a good job on everything. So I guess the rule fo thumb would be, good Pad Thai, good restaurant. Flawed Pad Thai, try something else before judging.

                              1. re: sbp

                                That sounds like my bread rule: A good restaurant may have bad bread, but a bad restaurant will not have good bread.

                                1. re: Bob W

                                  There are places I have eaten mostly for the good bread. Can't think of specifics, mainly bad Italian though.

                          2. re: Steve

                            One thing that can be judged from pad thai is the wok technique of the person cooking -- whether there's a good wok breath in the dish, which may translate to other stir fried dishes.