With the ubiquity of Thai restaurants around the world — by the mid-2000s, estimates placed that number around 12,000, with projections into the second decade of the millennium at more than 20,000 — two facts are clear: Pad Thai, one of Thailand’s national dishes, is found everywhere in the world, and it is impossible to dub “the world’s best,” with the plethora of variations around the globe prepared in an equally limitless number of establishments.
Traditionally an amalgamation of soaked, dried and stir-fried rice noodles; egg; chopped firm tofu; tamarind pulp; fish sauce; dried shrimp; garlic; shallots; red chili pepper; and palm sugar, this dish is usually garnished with lime and chopped peanuts. Modern plays on pad Thai include bean sprouts, garlic chives, coriander, pickled radishes, shrimp, crab or chicken. However, pad Thai is not the native dish many believe it to be.
Its full name — kway teow pad, meaning “rice noodles” in Chinese — hints at one possible origin. Others believe Viet traders brought the dish to the ancient Thai capital of Ayuthaya. In whatever manner rice noodles came to Thailand, the flavors found in the dish adapted to a uniquely Thai taste.
The popularity of pad Thai surged in the 1930s, 1940s and following World War II. The Thai fascist government under Plaeck Phibunsongkhram brought the dish to national attention in an attempt to promote nationalism in the country. Phibunsongkhram pushed the dish, in part to reduce rice consumption, a major export for Thailand, and also to modernize the country. The prevalence of pad Thai also had health and economic benefits for the people. Back then, it was prepared for approximately 3 cents a plate, and even today it can be found for around $2 as a street food in Thailand. The government at the time distributed pad Thai recipes and encouraged people to take to the streets and sell the dish from wheeled carts.
In many ways, that tradition lives on today in Thailand. As pad Thai is considered a specialty dish, it’s not often found on the pages of restaurant menus in Thailand. The restaurants do not dare compete with the food hawkers creating the street food in the local markets and in stalls along the sidewalks. Day in and day out, these masters create this one special dish, and they do it so well, there’s no reason to mess with success.
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