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

  • s

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.
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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 :

https://wiki.geneseo.edu/display/food...

http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/bl...

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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

          Agreed.
          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.

                          3. Interesting, your first link's article should expand to explain that the right-wing Field Marshall Plaek Pibulsonggram (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plaek_Ph...) was also rabidly anti-Chinese. One of his methods of fostering greater nationalism amongst the Thais was to popularize consumption of "Pad Thai", i.e. cooked in a unique "Thai" style, so that the Thais will stop patronizing the noodle stalls run by the ethnic Chinese in Thailand at the time.

                            This story was detailed in an article in The Nation newspaper in Thailand back in 2001 thereabouts. I read it whilst I was in Bangkok but couldn't find an electronic version of it now.

                            1. I quibble with you about Pad Thai not being Thai. Kway Teow is an imported name - and in Thailand it is noodles (wet noodles use that term when ordering). But that is like saying everything made with noodles is chinese (including italian food) - Pad Thai is not Chinese it is thai, pasta used in italy is italian etc. Anyways - getting past that.

                              Pad Thai is one thing that you can judge a Thai restaurant on.... but there are so many other things. If I go to a Thai restaurant in Canada/US I want the owner and operator to take PRIDE in what they are serving - and try to serve the best food they can. The problem with many restaurants is that they are run by non-thais and who have not spent a considerable amount in Thailand and who do not bother to hire cooks in Thailand. A non-thai can run a good thai restaurant, but they should immerse themselves in the cuisine first. Thai food has a balance of flavours (flavour profile) which should be understood first. Opening a cookbook will not give you that foundation that is needed to run a good restaurant. If an owner / operator does not have that then they will have to rely on others to provide him that - which is more risky.

                              Good American Thai restaurants will do many things, one they will source good ingredients (like Thai Eggplants that are not too old), they will make their own coconut milk/cream (otherwise you have to use canned -- and there is no comparison - canned is crap). You also will not treat your clientele like they are stupid - people can taste the difference .... maybe not to begin with .... but eventually they will know.

                              It all comes down to pride, and taking time to learn the foundations. Unfortunately - there are too many that don't put the effort into it.

                              1. Observation.

                                Thus far, not a single reply here agrees the assertion that "Pad Thai is not Thai, but Chinese"

                                1. I see this is your first post.

                                  Welcome to Chowhound!

                                  1. those who disagreed with the post can take a look at how a Thai chef talked about the origin of Pad Thai. The chef Kasma grew up in Thailand.
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                                    I don't really know how Pad Thai became the most famous of Thai foods in America. To me, it is but one of many quick fast foods, with the best served by noodle carts, inexpensive sidewalk eateries, and small, nondescript mom-and-pop noodle shops, rather than fine restaurants, in the cities and towns of Thailand. I always find it amusing when restaurant reviewers judge the quality of a Thai restaurant by the quality of its Pad Thai, as noodles can hardly take claim as lying at the heart of my country's cuisine.

                                    In fact, its name literally means "Thai-style stir-fried noodles," and for a dish to be so named in its own country clearly suggests an origin that isn't Thai. Indeed, noodle cookery in most Southeast Asian countries was introduced by the wave of immigrants from southern China settling in the region the past century. They brought with them rice noodles and their ways of cooking them. During the recession following World War II, the post-war government of Field Marshall Pibul, desperate in its efforts to revive the Thai economy, looked for ways to stem the massive tide of unemployment. Among the occupations the government aggressively promoted to give the populace a way to earn a living was the production of rice noodles and the operation of noodle shops. Detailed instructions on how to make the noodles and recipes were printed and distributed all around the country. From these efforts, rice noodles became firmly rooted in the country and have since become a widespread staple food.

                                    The ethnic Chinese had good business sense, survival skills and entrepreneurial spirit. Seeing how the Thai people were very fond of the combination of hot, sour, sweet and salty flavors, they added these to their stir-fried noodle dishes and gave it a fusion name, much like Western chefs today are naming their dishes Thai this or Thai that on their East-West menus.

                                    http://www.thaifoodandtravel.com/reci...
                                    http://www.thaifoodandtravel.com/bio....

                                    5 Replies
                                    1. re: Hamano

                                      <Indeed, noodle cookery in most Southeast Asian countries was introduced by the wave of immigrants from southern China settling in the region the past century. >

                                      That still does not dispute the fact that Pad Thai is a Thai dish and not a Chinese dish. There isn't a dish like that in Chinese cuisine. If it is not Thai, what is it? It is definitely not a Chinese dish.

                                      Just because Pad Thai has a distant origin from Chinese immigrants does not make it automatically Chinese. Japanese sushi and Japanese udon ...etc also have their origins directly link to China. Many of the Korean dishes are traced directly to China, including even Kimchi. Vietnamese? Same thing. In fact, it is easier to find Asian foods link to China, than not. Ancient China was the center of technology and arts -- many things are of course link to there. With your logic, a good portion of your Thai menu are all Chinese then. Yes, and the ones with Thai curry... they are all really Indian.

                                      <They brought with them rice noodles and their ways of cooking them. >

                                      Yes, rice was first domesticated in China too, and later the technology was exported. Meanwhile, tomatoes, corn and potatoes are bought from America.

                                      <they added these to their stir-fried noodle dishes and gave it a fusion name, much like Western chefs today are naming their dishes Thai this or Thai that on their East-West menus.>

                                      Very different. The fusion Thai dishes you see here in US are found here, rarely in Thailand. On the other hand, Pad Thai is greatly consumed in Thailand, not in China.

                                      Bottomline. No one here disputes Pad Thai has an origin which can be traced back to China, just like Japanese sushi or Korean kimchi .... etc. However, that alone does not make sushi, kimchi nor Pad Thai Chinese dishes.

                                      1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                        No, No, I get his logic now.... in fact there IS NO Chinese food since fire (heat) was first used to cook food 1.5 million years ago so all food derived from that point is Neanderthal food.

                                          1. re: cacruden

                                            Touche. And let's not forget, every spicy Thai dish, Sichuan dish, Korean dish, etc... are actually South American dishes.

                                        1. re: Hamano

                                          Chef's point that it is a silly way to judge Thai cooking is well-put.