Cooking in Chiang Mai + Pad Thai Recipe


When I first learned how to make Pad Thai, it was a dreamy situation: I was on vacation in Thailand during a bout of perfect weather, cooking in an outdoor kitchen surrounded by tropical greenery. I was taking a Thai cooking class in Chiang Mai, up in the northern part of the country, where there seems to be three or four  cooking classes for every city block. Earlier in the day our teacher had walked us through the local market, where we hand-picked our fresh meats, herbs, fruits and vegetables.

In Thailand, teaching westerners (or farang) how to cook is a great way for locals to make extra money for their families, and throughout the country you’ll see households building small multi-station outdoor kitchens in their yards so they can share their family recipes with a bevy of eager tourists. It’s a major win for the tourists, too, because these little cooking schools provide a great way to learn about Thai cooking from the best teachers imaginable: the people who have been cooking Thai food for generations.

Experiencing Real Thai Cooking

I’ve always loved Thai cooking, but I was completely unprepared for how eating my way through the country would ruin me for Americanized Thai food forever. When you’re actually in Thailand, the food you eat is unbelievably fresh; often the meat you’re eating was walking (or swimming) that day, and the vegetables were picked not long before they appear in market stalls. Once you’ve had the real thing, it’s tough to go back to eating in greasy American restaurants. Before you accuse me of hating on American Thai restaurants, there are a few that I’ve really enjoyed – but as with pretty much any international cuisine, what you get here pales in comparison to what you get when visiting a dish’s native land.

So what was a weary, culinarily-jaded traveler to do upon returning home? I’ll tell you what I did – I tried my damndest to recreate the authentic flavors of the dishes that I’d had when I was abroad. I’m lucky enough to live in the Bay Area, where international grocery stores are almost as common as gas stations, so it wasn’t difficult for me to ferret out a pantry’s worth of Thai ingredients (if you live in a major metropolitan area, there’s probably a Thai grocery near you – I encourage you to go explore!).

Why a Pad Thai Recipe?

Perhaps the most well-known Thai dish here in the United States is Pad Thai, or Thai-style fried noodles. This sweet-salty-sour dish is made to order from food carts all over Bangkok, where the smell of frying chicken, egg and garlic wafts down almost every soi as corner cooks peddle their wares. And every street cart has its own style, so you could eat a different Pad Thai recipe five times a day and never have the same dish twice. It’s almost impossible to stay hungry in Thailand. There is food everywhere.

A little history on the dish: my Thai cooking teacher told me a story of Thai prime minister Luang Pibulsonggram decreed the Pad Thai recipe as a national Thai dish sometime during Word War II, and that the Thais hold it up as a very important recipe in their culinary history. Further research told me that Pibulsonggram popularized the dish in an effort to reduce rice consumption so there was more to export to other countries, and some sources also say that after the war, the Thai government used Pad Thai as part of their plan to decrease the unemployment rate of the people by adopting a new trend of noodle-making and noodle-house dining. 

Regardless, Pad Thai is an incredible flavorful dish with a balance of many flavors, which is a priority in Thai cooking. If you make it at home, it’s leagues better than most Pad Thai that you’ll find at your local takeout joint!

Pad Thai Recipe

This Pad Thai recipe is adapted from the one I made all those years ago, on my first trip to Thailand. I remember how fun it was to work in the outdoor kitchen, stirring the ingredients in the wok while the aroma of the meat and spices overwhelmed my senses. I still get a little dreamy whenever I walk by a Thai restaurant, as that very same smell washes over me. There really are few things that smell better than an authentic Thai kitchen.

Serves 2 as an entree

Ingredients for Pad Thai:

  • 3 tablespoons oil – they used canola, I use olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon diced garlic
  • 1/2 pound chicken thighs, cut into 1″ cubes
  • 1/2 pound firm tofu, cut into 1″ cubes
  • 1 egg
  • 8 ounces Pad Thai rice noodles
  • 2 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 2 tablespoons oyster sauce
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/2 cup mung bean sprouts
  • 1/2 cup chopped spring onions
  • 1 lime, cut into quarters
  • 1/4 cup chopped peanuts
  • Additional spring onions for garnish

Method – How to make Pad Thai:

  1. Heat oil in a wok over low heat. Add garlic and fry until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Immediately add chicken to prevent garlic from burning and turn the heat up to medium, cooking for 2 minutes.
  2. Add tofu and cook for 1 minute, folding gently to avoid scrambling the tofu.
  3. Push everything to one side of the wok with a spatula, clearing an empty space for the egg to fry. Crack the egg into the empty space and scramble for 1 minute with a spatula. Once egg is well cooked, gently fold all ingredients in the wok together.
  4. Pour 1/2 cup water into the wok and add the rice noodles, stirring until the noodles are tender, about 4 or 5 minutes.
  5. Drizzle fish sauce and oyster sauce over the contents of the wok, then sprinkle sugar over the entire thing. Fold gently to incorporate, then stir in bean sprouts and spring onions. Cook for 1 minute and remove from heat.
  6. Serve hot, sprinkled with lime juice, chopped peanuts and spring onions. Serve hot!

More Thai Recipes You Might Like

Comments

  1. Heather @ Side of Sneakers says:

    This sounds fabulous- and I love the authenticity! Pad thai is one of my favorites!

  2. Alexandra says:

    Thanks so much for this recipe. I loved the history of Pad Thai, one of my favorite dishes. Now I can make it at home. Hip, hip hooray!
    .-= Check out Alexandra´s last blog post: Cry the Beloved Honeybee =-.

  3. Frugal Kiwi says:

    Sounds delish. We cook with rice noodles a lot, but I don’t have a definitive Pad Thai recipe I use. I’ll be giving this one a go after I move and unpack at the other end.
    .-= Check out Frugal Kiwi´s last blog post: Moving Tips: Create a Staging Area =-.

  4. sarah henry says:

    such a simple dish, the ol’ pad thai, and yet such complex flavors contribute to both its deliciousness and popularity.

    love yr photos, steph, and that serving bowl. simply elegant.
    .-= Check out sarah henry´s last blog post: Meatless Mondays: A Handy Primer, Part One =-.

  5. love the photos, and the story that goes along with your recipe.
    .-= Check out Kerry´s last blog post: Road trip music: Kentucky =-.

  6. Casey@Good. Food. Stories. says:

    Hooray! I can’t stand the greasy pad Thai usually found on menus, but never had a really good recipe to call my own.
    .-= Check out Casey@Good. Food. Stories.´s last blog post: Neighborhood Guide: The 2nd Arrondissement, Paris =-.

  7. Love pad thai – and loved reading about its history. So interesting! Thanks for the recipe that I can now make at home. Looks totally do-able and delicious.

  8. Richard Stevens says:

    I love pad Thai and this looks amazing. I’ve never been able to find gluten free oyster sauce. Did you? If so, what’s the brand? It’s such an integral ingredient!!

  9. The Writer's [Inner] Journey says:

    I’m bookmarking this recipe. My husband is a big fan of the dish and reading this makes me feel like I could make it. Thanks.
    .-= Check out The Writer’s [Inner] Journey´s last blog post: From My Web Designer’s POV: “Embrace the Relationship, Understand the Partner, Maintain My Identity” =-.

  10. Andrew McGivern says:

    Sounds delicious… I’m going to try this one for sure. I like recipes that are relatively easy and nutritious. Usually I like more veggies but I can eat those on the side!

    • Stephanie Stiavetti says:

      Ha, you could always try a vegetarian version with diced carrots and beets – actually, that sounds really good. Hrmm!

  11. MyKidsEatSquid says:

    Pad Thai is one of my favorite dishes–in fact I ate at a Thai restaurant last night and of course that’s what I ordered. I’ve tried making it at home, but it never seems to taste as good. I can’t wait to try your recipe. I’m surprised there’s not a splash of red wine vinegar in there. I also love the addition of Thai basil–it has an entirely different flavor profile than traditional basil. Off to cook!
    .-= Check out MyKidsEatSquid´s last blog post: Brownie Bacon Cookies—You know you want to try it! =-.

    • Stephanie Stiavetti says:

      Honestly, the key is fish sauce and oyster sauce – pour them in generously for a much more authentic taste! It really does make all the difference. In fact, fish sauce is used as a condiment in SE Asia, like we use ketchup.

  12. kamran siddiqi says:

    Wonderful post, Stephanie! I love the authenticity of the recipe and I loved reading about the history of it!

    • Stephanie Stiavetti says:

      So glad you like it. I’m thinking of going back and taking the full on chef’s training course. Exciting!

  13. Jennifer Margulis says:

    Score! I used to make Pad Thai all the time but haven’t in years. Am psyched to start making it again. I even think my kids might enjoy it. When are you coming over for dinner Stephanie?!
    .-= Check out Jennifer Margulis´s last blog post: On the Road Again =-.

    • Stephanie Stiavetti says:

      Just name a date and I’ll be there! :) Actually, I’m heading through again in August – let’s do dinner and cocktails! Would love to meet the brood.

  14. Sarah - A Beach Home Companion says:

    I love Thai food but always avoid the sweet versions of pad thai they make in restaurants in SoCal, which I had heard was the traditional way. I’m going to give your version a try because I’ve got 4 packages of rice noodles in my cupboard right now just begging to be used!
    .-= Check out Sarah – A Beach Home Companion´s last blog post: Paris: The Louvre is a Big Place =-.

    • Stephanie Stiavetti says:

      They do use a sh!t-ton of sugar in Thailand – one of my instructors joked that it’s because the Thais are such a sweet people. ;) But yeah, I tend to make it with less sugar, or add tamarind instead.

  15. Paula - bell'alimento says:

    I haven’t had Pad Thai in forever and NOW I’m going to change that. Thanks for the great story & RECIPE!

  16. I really liked the history of Pad Thai. Very interesting! This recipe looks less complicated than some I’ve made. I’m anxious to try it out!

  17. travel and cooking classes? that’s a great idea. my mom used to work in refugee camps around the world and would learn to cook different dishes while she was there (i ate a lot of vietnamese food growing up!). however, i never thought of taking cooking classes while playing tourist.

  18. The Chatty Housewife says:

    I can’t wait to try this recipe, I just have to make sure I can find the sauces gluten-free. Which makes me wonder whether or not the pad thai I am ordering at restaurants is truly gluten free. In the past all I have asked is that it doesn’t have soy sauce, oops!

    Do you know what is added to up the spice level? I don’t see anything in this recipe that would be spicy?

  19. Claude-Olivier says:

    Hi, whaou, what a nice blog and post! The pad thai is one of my favorite thai dish !!! I’ve eaten a lot in Thailand in 2006, and I’ve even followed ing a coocking lecture to make it right at home. I’ve always read that the special taste of pad thai came from the tamarin juice added in the dish ? Anyway, your receipe looks great, as your pictures ! Have a nice day
    Cheers
    From Switzerland !

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