I've always viewed spaghetti squash — with its clever, noodle-like interior — as a fun party trick, always surprising both for its ability to reasonably mimic pasta and how satisfying the results can be. It's good, sure, but it's also never really had a "wow" moment for me.
Now, let me introduce you to this pad Thai. This dish has "wow" written all over it. It's tangy and savory in all the right places; it's crunchy and chewy and tender, all together. It has all the hallmarks of your favorite take-out pad Thai — except those spaghetti squash noodles are the star of the show.
I first started thinking about how I might make pad Thai out of spaghetti squash when I realized that squash noodles are actually much closer to vermicelli and glass noodles than they are to Italian pasta made with eggs. The cooked squash noodles are very thin and pliant, but they retain just a touch of crunch, which can sometimes be a bit jarring in a creamy pasta dish. In a noodle stir-fry, however, they're perfect.
Stir-fries like pad Thai have so much going on that the slight crunchiness of the squash noodles just goes into the mix. When you have chewy cubes of fried tofu, tender onions and scallions, crunchy peanuts, and a tasty sauce to bring it all together, who's going to notice whether the noodles are more brittle than usual? You lose some of the chewiness of rice noodles, but honestly, when the steaming plate was in front of me, I hardly noticed.
Let's talk about the sauce for this pad Thai for a second. Start with the proportions of tamarind paste, fish sauce, and palm sugar that I give here, but the first time you make it, you'll probably want to taste it and adjust it. The sauce should be stronger than you'd want to eat on its own, but not so strong that it doesn't seem palatable anymore. I've also found that some varieties of tamarind paste are stronger than others, and also that some people like their pad Thai more lightly sauced than others. This is just one of those things you have to try a few times and adjust until it's exactly to your liking.
If you have a wok, now is the time to use it. The high heat and the particular magic of wok-cooking gives the vegetables a nice crisp-tender texture and the whole dish a hint of smokiness. You can definitely cook it in a wider skillet, but there's something about the wok here that I think makes the dish extra special.
If you're wondering if you could just sub rice noodles in for the spaghetti squash in this recipe, the answer is "yes." If the end result is a dinner you look forward to eating and making, I say go for it, no matter what noodles you use.
Spaghetti Squash Pad Thai
Serves 2 to 4 (generous for 2; good with sides for 4)
For the pad Thai sauce:
2 tablespoons tamarind paste (or rice wine vinegar, see Recipe Note)
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons palm sugar or brown sugar
2 to 4 tablespoons water, to thin
For the pad Thai:
1/2 medium spaghetti squash (from a 3-pound squash)
2 1/2 tablespoons peanut oil
8 ounces extra-firm tofu, diced
2 tablespoons corn starch
1/2 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
2 large eggs, whisked
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 scallions, cut into 1- to 2-inch pieces
1/2 cup bean sprouts, plus more to serve
2 tablespoons chopped peanuts, to serve
Lime wedges, to serve
Cilantro, to serve
Red pepper flakes, to serve
Whisk together the tamarind paste, fish sauce, and palm sugar for the sauce. Add 2 tablespoons of water, to thin out the sauce. Microwave on high heat for 30 seconds and whisk until everything is combined into a thin sauce. The sauce should taste very strong, but still palatable; add more water if needed to reach a good balance of tartness and pungency. Measure out about 1/4 cup to be used for this recipe; the remaining sauce will keep refrigerated for several weeks.
Cut the squash in half; save one half for another purpose. Prepare the other half, either in the microwave (15 minutes) or in the oven (30 to 45 minutes). When cooked, shred the inside with a fork and set aside. You should have 3 to 4 cups of spaghetti squash tendrils.
Toss the tofu in the cornstarch until all the cubes are evenly coated with a gummy layer of cornstarch. Set aside while you prep the rest of the ingredients; make sure all the ingredients are prepped before you begin cooking. Place a large dinner plate next to the stove to hold ingredients as they come out of the wok.
Heat a wok or large skillet over high heat until a flick of water dissolves almost instantly on the surface. Add a tablespoon of peanut oil and quickly swirl the pan to coat. Add the tofu and stir-fry until golden on all sides, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer the cooked tofu to a plate. (Adjust the heat as needed if your pan starts smoking.)
Warm another half tablespoon of peanut oil in the pan and add the onions. Cook until the onions are just starting to soften and show golden color, 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer to the plate with the tofu. (Adjust the heat as needed if your pan starts smoking.)
Warm another half tablespoon of peanut oil in the pan and swirl to coat the bottom. Whisk the eggs one more time and then pour them into the bottom of the pan. Cook, tilting the pan to create a very thin omelet. When the eggs are almost set, begin nudging and cutting them with your spatula to create big curds. Transfer the cooked eggs to the plate with the tofu and onion. (Adjust the heat as needed if your pan starts smoking.)
Warm the last half tablespoon of peanut oil in the pan and add the garlic. Fry until the garlic is fragrant and golden, about 10 seconds. Add all of the spaghetti squash and spread into a single layer. Cook for 30 seconds or so, then stir the squash and spread it back out again. Repeat a few times until the squash is warmed and beginning to show golden, roasted color.
Drizzle 2 tablespoons of the pad Thai sauce around the outside edge of the pan, then stir it into the squash. Continue stirring until the sauce evenly coats all the squash. Give it a quick taste and add up to 2 tablespoons additional sauce if needed.
Add the scallions and bean sprouts to the pan with the squash, and stir to combine. Add the tofu, onions, and egg back to the pan and stir to combine. Taste again, adding additional sauce if needed.
Transfer the pad Thai to a large serving plate and top with chopped peanuts, cilantro, red pepper flakes, and lime wedges. Serve immediately while still very hot. Leftovers reheat well and will keep for up to a week in the fridge.
Substitute for tamarind: If you can't find tamarind paste (or are in desperate need for pad Thai after the store has closed), you can substitute rice wine vinegar. The dish won't have quite the same pungency or pizzazz, but in a pinch, it works.
(Image credits: Emma Christensen)