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The politics behind pad thai

The politics behind pad thai

Thailand’s national dish embodies its turbulent history

Thailand’s national dish embodies its turbulent history

Eve Watling | June/July 2018

Pad thai’s full name, kway teow pad thai, comes from a dialect of Chinese and translates as “Thai-style stir-fried rice noodles”, implying that the dish originated in China and was modified with Thai flavours. Although Chinese immigrants brought noodles to Thailand, sweet tamarind, sour lime and salty fish sauce are all classic elements of Thai cuisine.

The dish peacefully existed as the joint product of these two cultures until the 1930s, when nationalism swept Thailand. Plaek Pibulsongkhram, the prime minister, issued a series of decrees promoting a unified Thai identity and repressed the ethnic Chinese population. In a bid to protect rice farmers, pad thai was named the national dish – but with local rice noodles instead of the imported wheaten variety. Though served up as a symbol of national harmony, pad thai embodies Thailand’s history of political turbulence.

First mix tamarind, palm sugar, chilli and fish sauce to taste. Soak the noodles until they are flexible, before adding them to a hot wok. While stirring them, pour in the sauce. When they’re soft enough, push them to the side and cook the prawns, egg and half the bean sprouts. Then mix everything together along with the remaining beansprouts and some garnish – try chives, peanuts or dried shrimp.

Thai cooking welcomes customisation. Vegetarians can swap the fish sauce for vinegar, the meat for tofu. Thai chef Pim Techamuanvivit recommends a garnish of pickled turnips. Despite Pibulsongkhram’s attempts to homogenise the dish, it remains rebelliously diverse.