I recently had the best Pad Thai of my life. It was one of those restaurant meals where the person cooking takes us under her wing and simply says, "How about I just cook for you?" Chef Ngamprom "Hong" Thaimee of Ngam in NYC's East Village then brought out plate after plate of regional Thai cuisine from her native Chiang Mai, Thailand, and I was floored.
Normally when I have this kind of meal out, I try to savor it as just that: a meal out that I will probably not make at home. But this was different. In particular, Hong's Green Papaya Pad Thai was a game-changer. Replacing the traditional rice noodles with shredded green papaya isn't a new trick — and one that's gaining a wider audience thanks to its lower carb count — but I'd never thought to make it that way at home. So I called her the next day and asked her to please teach me. This week, I visited her kitchen.
I first wanted to understand what made Chef Hong's Thai cooking different from other "authentic" Thai food I'd had. She is a very talented but modest artist in the kitchen, and mostly credits her grandmother and her culture in general for the way food is honored. "Everyone prepares the meal together, and everyone then sits down to eat it together," she told me. I asked about ingredients, methods, etc., and she shared things like how this northern region of Thailand takes some of its traditions from its Burmese and Chinese neighbors, but mostly, she kept returning to this simple notion of sharing good food together. "We cook it together, and it's just better."
When I asked about her education, Hong said, "I learned to make curry paste in the third grade." Her resume, however, is not a typical chef's. She has worked as a model, a television host, and most recently, in corporate responsibility for Merck. In the end, she was drawn to treating life as "a never ending classroom" and felt that her ultimate calling was to share the best of Thai cooking with the world. And so her journey to the US and to open Ngam began. She opened in 2011 and already has a list of accolades, many pointing directly to her Pad Thai, in the window of her modest Third Avenue storefront.
Hong's three tips for great pad thai are to use pickled turnips and tofu croutons (essentially deep fried tofu), to prepare all the ingredients before turning on the fire, and then firing up a hot pan (preferably a wok) and cooking the dish in small batches. Other than that, she says, the key to Thai cooking is love. "And don't worry about spicy or chopsticks," she says, "these are two myths about Thai food. We don't necessarily need it spicy, and we don't use chopsticks! Knife and spoon."
The recipe as written below is for two servings and is adapted from Hong's restaurant-ready method. If making more than two servings, you can prep the ingredients for as many servings as you'd like (1 whole green papaya for four servings, etc) as well as cooking the sauce, the meat, and the tofu croutons ahead in larger batches, but fire the dish itself (from the garlic/shallots step forward) in no more than two servings at a time. This is where the cooking-together comes into play; I had my six-year-old chopping peanuts and cracking eggs.
A note on some of the ingredients: a green papaya is simply an unripe papaya. Most Asian markets carry it. The other ingredients that may seem hard to come by, like palm sugar, tamarind paste, and pickled turnips, can also be found online. There's no reason why this beautiful dish can't happen in your kitchen.
Green Papaya Pad Thai
1/2 whole green papaya
1/3 cup fish sauce
2 tablespoons palm sugar (or granulated sugar)
1 tablespoon tamarind paste
1/3 cup vegetable oil, divided
1 1/2 cups thinly sliced chicken, beef, pork or tofu (optional)
4 ounces firm tofu, cubed
3 small garlic cloves, minced
1 small shallot, minced
1/4 cup chopped pickled turnip
1 cup bean sprouts, washed and dried
1/2 cup chopped flat Chinese chives
1/2 cup chopped roasted peanuts
Freshly ground black pepper
Thai-style dried chile powder
Wash the papaya. Remove the skin and wash the papaya again. Slice it in half lengthwise and scoop out the white seeds. For two servings, cut one half of the papaya into strips, or use a box grated to make long shreds, like noodles. Each half will yield about 1 1/2 cups papaya "noodles."
In a small pan combine the fish sauce, palm sugar and tamarind paste. Cook the sauce over medium heat until the mixture bubbles and thickens slightly. Remove from the heat and set aside.
If you're adding chicken, beef, pork, or tofu, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a wok or large frying pan on high heat and cook the meat or tofu for 3-4 minutes. Remove the meat or tofu to a small bowl and set aside.
Heat another 2 tablespoons oil in the same pan. When just barely smoking, toss in the tofu cubes and fry, agitating the pan in order to cook all sides, until they form a crisp brown skin, about 2 minutes. Lift the tofu croutons from the pan with a slotted spoon and drain them on a paper bag or stack of several paper towels.
Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons oil (or half the remaining 4 tablespoons oil if omitting the optional meat or tofu) on high heat and add the garlic and shallots to the hot pan and cook for 1 minute stirring constantly with a wok spatula or large wooden spoon. Add the cooked meat or tofu, if using.
Crack the egg into the pan and stir-fry for a few seconds until it begins to set. Add the papaya noodles and stir for 1 minute until well coated with cooked egg. Add the Pad Thai sauce, stirring constantly until the mixture is well coated. Add the turnip, tofu croutons, all but a pinch of the bean sprouts and the chives. Stir well then immediately remove from heat and divide between two plates or present in one large serving bowl. Top with remaining sprouts, toasted peanuts, a pinch or two of chile powder (depending on taste for heat), a few cracks of ground black pepper, and a wedge of lime.
(Images: Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan)