Pad Thai

published Apr 27, 2024
Pad Thai Recipe

Dish up these tasty noodles for lunch, dinner, or as a late-night restorative.

Serves4

Prep30 minutes

Cook20 minutes

Jump to Recipe
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
overhead shot of pad thai on a large white round plate, garnished with lime halves and green onion and a side of red pepper flakes and salt
Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Food Styling: Rachel Perlmutter

Like many a well-loved dish, pad Thai is served up with its very own apocryphal origin story: As the oft-repeated tale goes, Field Marshal Phibun, prime minister and nationalist dictator from 1938 to 1944, created the dish as part of his campaign to shape Thailand’s nascent national consciousness.

The real story, as always, is a little more complicated. By the time Phibun came to power, stir-fried noodles similar to pad Thai were already common. The regime’s campaign to promote noodles as a source of nutrition and noodle hawking as a worthwhile economic activity touched on “Thai-style” stir-fried noodles, but made no mention of a specific dish called pad Thai. 

The dish as we know it most likely crystallized later, during the Vietnam War years, suggests historian Chatchai Muksong. A dish called “pad Thai” appeared for the first time in a home economics handbook (itself an example of American influence) in 1962 as part of a weekly meal plan. The influx of American visitors and influence fundamentally changed the way Thai people grow, cook, and eat food, and perhaps incentivized the creation of a dish that would be iconic and marketable to the outside world. As Muksong speculates, the branding of the dish as “Thai” hints at a target audience more foreign than local. 

In the years that followed, successive Thai governments seized on Thai food — now familiar to more Americans than ever before — as its star export. It launched campaigns to promote Thai restaurants abroad, standardize popular recipes, and even worked on an artificial tongue to police taste. Through these efforts, pad Thai, in essence, became a standard bearer for Thai culture in the age of globalization. 

Why You’ll Love It

  • The “pad” in pad Thai, of course, refers to how it’s prepared: by stir-frying, usually in a wide, well-seasoned, very hot wok or pan. These conditions are a little trickier to replicate in a standard-issued American kitchen (as my gloopy, sorry attempts over the years can attest), but not impossible. By cooking and setting aside the ingredients in rounds, and letting the pan come up to temperature in between each round, this recipe is well-adapted for the BTU-deficient masses. What’s more, this method works perfectly well in a standard frying pan too. 
  • According to our cross-tester, the sweet preserved radish, as well as the dried small shrimp, are the key “secret” ingredients that lend more flavor and authenticity to this dish. 

Key Ingredients in Pad Thai

Some notes on key ingredients, before we get started. 

  • Sugar: While palm sugar is the traditional option (it was the only choice before granulated sugar became commercially available), light brown sugar is also entirely acceptable. I prefer the paste variety (“nam tarn peep” after the containers it was traditionally sold in) because it is easier to use. If opting for the solid or cake variety, you will need to chop up, pound, or melt the sugar (in the microwave, with a little water) first before measuring and using in the recipe. Avoid granulated coconut sugar; the caramelized flavor doesn’t work well in this application. 
  • Tamarind: This is the key, in my opinion, to that signature tang. You can use commercial concentrate or make your own pulp — both are equally valid life choices (and I support you on your journey). I don’t have a specific brand I’m loyal to — just go with whatever your local Asian market carries. When developing the recipe, I used GloryBee brand organic tamarind purée because it was what my local grocery store carried.  
  • Tofu: This is, by far, my favorite part of the whole dish. When properly fried, the tofu picks up a nice crust while absorbing a ton of flavor. In Thailand, most people use yellow tofu (“tao hu luang”), which is a more compressed version than what’s typically sold in most U.S. supermarkets. Extra-firm tofu, once pressed, works well as a substitute. 
  • Sweet preserved radish: Called “chai poh” or “chai poh wan” in Thai, this ingredient provides another layer of savory sweetness to the dish. It’s sold both whole and pre-shredded; either will work. You can skip it if you absolutely must, but it is worth searching for (at your local Asian market or online).
  • Dried shrimp: Dried shrimp adds a pop of texture to the dish. Dried shrimp should be relatively easy to find at Asian markets. I prefer the smaller ones, but use whatever size you like. It can be skipped if unavailable.
  • Bean sprouts: I call for mung bean sprouts here because it is the most commonly used in pad Thai. However, if soybean sprouts (or other mild, crunchy sprouts or shoots like sunflower) are available to you, they will work just as well. 
  • Noodles: Traditionally pad Thai is made with flat, thin rice noodles. The most renowned variety comes from the province of Chanthaburi (where they are manufactured), and is named “sen Chan” after its place of origin. They are flat rice noodles about 1/2 to 1 centimeter wide. Noodles sold as “pad Thai noodles” work perfectly well. “Sen lek,” literally small noodles, can also be used. Different brands of noodles may take different soaking times. If your noodles droop when picked up and can wrap around your fingers without breaking, they are fully hydrated and ready for use. 
Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Food Styling: Rachel Perlmutter

How to Make Pad Thai

As with most stir-fried dishes, it is exceedingly important to have all the ingredients prepared before you start cooking. In the interest of saving on dishes, I’ve tried to group ingredients together as much as possible in the recipe below. 

  1. Soak the noodles. Submerge your noodles in lukewarm water. Let soak until noodles are droopy and pliable, about 30 minutes (or longer for thicker noodles). While some folks prefer to blanch their noodles or use hot water for soaking, I much prefer the lukewarm water method. Yes, your noodles will take longer to fully hydrate, but you also don’t have to watch the clock so carefully; an extra 20 minutes won’t hurt your noodles much. This way, you can set your noodles soaking and take as much time as you need on the other ingredients.
  2. Prepare the tofu. Cut, salt, and press the tofu.
  3. Make the sauce. Simmer palm sugar, fish sauce, and tamarind together and set aside.
  4. Prepare the remaining ingredients. Have all your aromatics, seasonings, proteins, and vegetables at hand and wok-ready. 
  5. Stir-fry ingredients separately. Stir-fry the tofu, shrimp, and noodles separately.
  6. Toss everything together. Stir-fry the eggs, then add the rest of the ingredients back into the wok to bring everything together. 

Helpful Swaps

  • Sugar: If using palm sugar in a puck or block, microwave for 30 seconds with a little water, then stir with a spoon until a paste forms before measuring out 1/4 cup. If palm sugar is unavailable, an equal amount of packed light brown sugar can be used instead. Do not substitute granulated coconut sugar.
  • Tamarind: If using tamarind pulp, prepare it by soaking it and pressing it through a strainer first. The strained tamarind should be about the consistency of applesauce; if it’s thinner, reduce or omit the water from the sauce. If it’s thicker, add more water as needed.
  • Tofu: Thai yellow tofu, dry tofu, or smoked tofu can be used in place of extra-firm tofu. Just cut into 1-inch-long pieces that are 1/2-inch wide and 1/2-inch thick — no need to press.

Storage and Make-Ahead Tips 

  • The noodles can be soaked up to 1 to 2 days ahead. Once softened, drain well and refrigerate in an airtight container. 
  • While the recipe only calls for half a block of tofu, I highly recommend cutting and draining the whole thing (increase kosher salt to 1 tablespoon if you choose to do so). What you don’t use can be refrigerated for 1 to 2 days or frozen for up to 5 months, and used later in other stir-fries (or another round of pad Thai). Incidentally, freezing and thawing tofu gives it a spongy texture that is excellent in many applications (including this one). 
  • The pad Thai sauce can also be made up to 1 month ahead and refrigerated in an airtight container. The sauce can also be made in larger quantities and stored for future use. You can freeze extra portions of the sauce to have pad Thai sauce available for use whenever the craving strikes; thaw before using. 

What to Serve With Pad Thai

While many Thai dishes are traditionally eaten as part of a larger spread accompanied by — or rather to accompany — rice, pad Thai is considered “arharn jaan deaw,” a one-dish meal, and is often eaten just by itself. It’s usually served for lunch and dinner, but is also great as a late-night post-going-out restorative.

Pad Thai is usually served accompanied by a few garnishes. Sugar, lime wedges, crushed peanuts, and red pepper flakes are provided so diners can season the dish to their liking. Fresh vegetables — typically fresh bean sprouts, whole scallions or garlic chives, and fresh banana blossoms — are served on the side (to be nibbled on) for textural contrast. You can, of course, skip the bells and whistles and serve the noodles simply as is. 

Pad Thai Recipe

Dish up these tasty noodles for lunch, dinner, or as a late-night restorative.

Prep time 30 minutes

Cook time 20 minutes

Serves 4

Ingredients

For the tofu and stir-fry:

  • 7 to 8 ounces

    dried pad Thai noodles (thin, flat rice noodles)

  • 7 ounces

    extra-firm tofu

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons

    kosher salt

  • 3

    cloves garlic

  • 1

    medium shallot

  • 1/4 cup

    Thai sweet preserved radish

  • 2 tablespoons

    roasted, unsalted peanuts

  • 2 tablespoons

    small dried shrimp

  • 4

    large eggs

  • 2

    medium scallions or 6 garlic chives

  • 2 cups

    mung bean sprouts

  • 8 ounces

    raw jumbo peeled and deveined shrimp (21 to 25 per pound)

  • 4 tablespoons

    vegetable oil, divided, plus more as needed

For the sauce:

Serving options:

  • 2

    medium limes, cut into wedges

  • 1 to 2

    medium scallions or garlic chives

  • Handful mung bean or soybean sprouts

  • Banana blossom (see Recipe Notes)

  • Granulated sugar

  • Crushed roasted, unsalted peanuts

  • Red pepper flakes

Instructions

  1. Soak the noodles: Place 7 to 8 ounces dried pad Thai noodles in a large bowl and add enough lukewarm water to fully submerge the noodles. Let soak until the noodles can bend around your fingers without breaking, about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare the tofu.

  2. Prepare the tofu: Fit a rimmed baking sheet with a wire rack and line the rack with paper towels or a kitchen towel. Drain and cut 7 ounces extra-firm tofu into 1/2-inch thick planks. Place the planks in a single layer on the towels and sprinkle with 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt. Cover with more paper towels or another kitchen towel. Top with a second rimmed baking sheet. Place some heavy weights on the baking sheet (a Dutch oven plus your bowl of soaking noodles makes the perfect press). Let drain for 30 minutes. (Skip this step if you are using a tofu that is not stored in water.) Meanwhile, make the sauce and prepare the remaining ingredients.

  3. Make the sauce: Place 1/4 cup palm sugar paste, 3 tablespoons fish sauce, 3 tablespoons tamarind concentrate, and 3 tablespoons water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook until the sugar is fully dissolved and the consistency of maple syrup, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove the saucepan from the heat.

  4. Prepare the remaining ingredients: Mince 3 garlic cloves and 1 medium shallot (about 1/4 cup), and place both in a small bowl. Finely chop 1/4 cup preserved radish and crush or coarsely chop 2 tablespoons roasted, unsalted peanuts. Place both in a second small bowl. Rinse 2 tablespoons small dried shrimp and add to the bowl of peanuts and radish.

  5. Crack 4 large eggs into a medium bowl. Halve 2 medium scallions lengthwise, then cut crosswise into 1-inch pieces (if using 6 garlic chives, cut crosswise into 1-inch pieces). Place in a second medium bowl and add 2 cups mung bean sprouts.

  6. Drain the noodles. Transfer the tofu to a cutting board and cut the planks into pieces roughly 1 inch long and 1/2 inch wide. Pat 8 ounces raw jumbo shrimp dry with paper towels if they are very wet; you can keep the tails on or remove them.

  7. Heat 2 tablespoons vegetable oil in a large, well-seasoned wok or nonstick or cast iron frying pan (12 to 14 inches) over medium-high heat until it just begins to smoke.

  8. Add the tofu and stir-fry until golden-brown, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl, leaving the oil behind in the pan. Heat the pan up again over medium-high heat. Add the jumbo shrimp and spread into a single layer. Cook until opaque and just cooked through, 2 to 3 minutes total. Transfer to the bowl of tofu.

  9. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons vegetable oil to the pan. Add the shallots and garlic and fry until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the peanut mixture and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the noodles and sauce, and keep the noodles moving in the pan (use 2 spatulas if you can) until the strands are cooked through and evenly coated in sauce, about 3 minutes. If the pan dries out before the noodles soften, add water a tablespoon at a time (2 to 3 tablespoons total) and keep stirring until the noodles are cooked through. Transfer to the bowl with the tofu and shrimp.

  10. Return the pan to medium-high heat, adding a little more vegetable oil if the pan is dry. Once the pan is starting to smoke again again, add the eggs. Scramble the eggs with a spatula to form large curds. Right before the eggs are cooked through, return the noodle mixture to the pan and toss everything together, breaking up the pieces of egg.

  11. Push the noodles to one side of the pan. Add the scallions and bean sprouts to the other side and toss into the noodles until just wilted, about 30 seconds. Transfer the pad Thai to a serving platter.

  12. Serve with lime wedges, 1 to 2 whole medium scallions or garlic chives, a handful of fresh bean sprouts, a banana blossom, and small piles of granulated sugar, crushed peanuts, and red pepper flakes if desired.

Recipe Notes

Noodles: If your noodles are on the thicker side (or if you're short on time), soak the noodles in hot water instead. Check them after 15 minutes, then every 5 minutes after. Once they can wrap around your fingers without breaking, drain, rinse in cold water, and set aside until ready to use.

Fresh banana blossom prep: Peel off the tough outer petals to reveal the tender, white heart. Quarter the heart lengthwise and let soak in cold water acidulated with the juice of 1 lime and 1 tablespoon of white vinegar for about 5 minutes. This will prevent the blossom from turning brown.

Substitutions:

  • Sugar: If using palm sugar in a puck or block, microwave for 30 seconds with a little water, then stir with a spoon until a paste forms before measuring out 1/4 cup. If palm sugar is unavailable, an equal amount of packed light brown sugar can be used instead. Do not substitute granulated coconut sugar.
  • Tamarind: If using tamarind pulp, prepare it by soaking it and pressing it through a strainer first. The strained tamarind should be about the consistency of applesauce; if it’s thinner, reduce or omit the water from the sauce. If it’s thicker, add more water as needed.
  • Tofu: Thai yellow tofu, dry tofu, or smoked tofu can be used in place of extra-firm tofu. Just cut into 1-inch-long pieces that are 1/2-inch wide and 1/2-inch thick — no need to press.

Make ahead:

  • The noodles can be soaked up to 1 to 2 days ahead. Once softened, drain well and refrigerate in an airtight container.
  • The tofu can be drained, pressed, and cut up to 1 day ahead. Refrigerate in an airtight container.
  • The pad Thai sauce can also be made up to 1 month ahead and refrigerated in an airtight container. You can freeze extra portions of the sauce to have pad Thai sauce available for use whenever the craving strikes; thaw before using.

Storage: Leftovers can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 2 days. Sprinkle the noodles with a little water and cover loosely before microwaving to help the noodles soften and heat through evenly.