Pad Thai at Home

Pad Thai made with chicken and shrimp.

I love Pad Thai, and for years I only enjoyed it when I ate out. Once I bought a kit and tried to make it at home, but it was so disappointing that I didn’t repeat it, and I didn’t learn enough from the experience to grasp the principle behind the dish. I even put in a query here and a couple of helpful souls sent along recipes. My experiment foundered from a lack of bean sprouts in the stores at the time, and I ended up dropping the topic.

However, recently my island friend and neighbor Kathy Kerr, having taken a class from Johnny Erskine, one of a couple local master Pad Thai makers, showed me how to do it. Johnny, whose day job is school cook, is famous for his Pad Thai, and he does it for the occasional fundraiser. Actually, almost anything Johnny makes it really good; the kids at school are pretty lucky.
I guess the story here is that I learn best by watching someone else do it. I know, I know: I suppose I could’ve looked on YouTube, but I’d rather be in the kitchen with my teacher, smelling, tasting and asking questions.

The other thing about Pad Thai is that some of the ingredients like rice noodles, fish sauce, pickled radish, and tamarind paste, are a little out of my usual pantry supply. Most of the ingredients are easily found in supermarkets. I have taken to keeping rice vinegar, seasoned or not, on hand, because I like it for salads and I always have tamari (soy sauce). There are some substitutes, though, that work well enough, and maybe the next time I go to the Big City, I’ll locate some tamarind paste. Meanwhile, I’ll use lime juice.
You can even use pasta—fettuccini—instead of rice noodles, though rice noodles is one of the charms of Pad Thai. As an old granola, I often have tofu on hand. The eggs, chicken, shrimp, onions, garlic, hot pepper flakes, scallions and cilantro are more or less regular occupants of my freezer and fridge and, in summer, garden. Fresh bean sprouts are best, but in a pinch you can use canned ones. I ended up substituting shredded Savoy cabbage from my supply down cellar for the sprouts, because I didn’t plan ahead well enough to acquire them.

A Savoy cabbage that I grew last summer, fresh out of storage in the cellar.

The ingredients list is long, but remember that you can make the sauce in a large enough quantity that you can use it to make a few batches of Pad Thai.

P.S. FYI: A reader, Barbara Geiger, got in touch with the information that the Natural Living Center in Bangor carries tamarind paste, and even does mail order. 1-800-933-4229.

Assembling this takes a few steps, but you end up with a terrific one-dish meal.
Pad Thai Sauce
½ cup water
¼ cup sugar
¼ cup white vinegar
¼ cup tamari or soy sauceS
1/3 cup fish sauce
2 tablespoons tamarind paste (I used 2 tablespoons lime juice)
1 tablespoon ketchup
½ teaspoon garlic and chili sauce (optional)
Mix all the ingredients together by shaking them in a jar or putting them in a pan to simmer for a short while. Store the extra stuff for use whenever you make Pad Thai.

Pad Thai
4 to 5 ounces of rice noodles (about a third of a one-pound package)
Vegetable oil
4 ounces of firm tofu, sliced
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 medium onion, sliced thinly
2 cloves of garlic, chopped finely
Sprinkle of red pepper flakes (optional)
4 to 6 ounces or about half a chicken breast
4 ounces or a generous handful of peeled shrimp
Pad Thai sauce
A generous handful of bean sprouts
A chopped scallion
Chopped cilantro (optional)
Chopped roasted peanuts

Soak the rice noodles for about two hours in sufficient cold water to cover them.

When you are ready to assemble the Pad Thai, heat a couple of tablespoons of vegetable oil in a wok or large frying pan, and add the tofu. Fry until the tofu is crisp, remove, drain, and set aside. Add the eggs to the pan and scramble them, cooking until they are firmly set. Remove and chop them, then set aside. Drain the noodles and set aside.

In a little more oil, sauté the onions, garlic, and optional red pepper flakes. Add the chicken and shrimp and sauté until done, then add the noodles, eggs, and tofu with a quarter of a cup of the sauce, and cook, stirring, until the noodles are translucent and tender. Use more sauce or water as needed.

Serve with a garnish of bean sprouts, scallion, cilantro, and peanuts, or even a slice of lemon.

Makes two to three servings.

Looking for…Black Pumpkin Pie. A fellow food historian, Lynne Olver, in New Jersey, came across this reference dated ca: 1940s through the ‘50s or so, to a dish attributed to Maine: “More recently, at Gouldsborough, Maine, a relative of mine was served black pumpkin pie for breakfast, which he said was delicious.” I told her I had not heard of such a thing, but that I would ask my Downeast readers if they knew of it, especially all of you in the Gouldsboro area. Can you give us a recipe? Or explain the name? Was it the pumpkin that was black or what?

Sandy Oliver

About Sandy Oliver

Sandy Oliver Sandy is a freelance food writer with the column Taste Buds appearing weekly since 2006 in the Bangor Daily News, and regular columns in Maine Boats, Homes, and Harbors magazine and The Working Waterfront. Besides freelance food writing, she is a pioneering food historian beginning her work in 1971 at Mystic Seaport Museum, where she developed a fireplace cooking program in an 1830s house. After moving to Maine in 1988, Sandy wrote, Saltwater Foodways: New Englanders and Their Foods at Sea and Ashore in the 19th Century published in 1995. She is the author of The Food of Colonial and Federal America published in fall of 2005, and Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving History and Recipes from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie which she co-authored with Kathleen Curtin. She often speaks to historical organizations and food professional groups around the country, organizes historical dinners, and conducts classes and workshops in food history and in sustainable gardening and cooking. Sandy lives on Islesboro, an island in Penobscot where she gardens, preserves, cooks and teaches sustainable lifeways.