Ever go through these phases of being in love with certain foods or dishes? Like, “I’m so into pork belly right now. I wanna try it every place I go”? Well, I am having the opposite problem right now! I’m really mad at Pad Thai!
But it’s not like me and Pad Thai can just stop talking. I serve maybe 30 to 40 orders a day of the stuff, and I look at them in disgust, almost anger! I was cooking Pad Thai the other day and thinking, Who the hell do you think you are? How can you be the quintessential representative of Thai cuisine? Who died and made you King of Thai Food?
The American version of Pad Thai has paprika, which isn’t even a native spice of Thailand, and a lot of versions are more sweet than anything. Thai food is prized for the balance of hot, sour, salty and sweet. Curse you, Pad Thai!
This has gotta be a phase, because Pad Thai is one of the dishes that put me on the map. It’s a dish I’ve studied and made for years and years. It’s the true gauge if some claims to know Thai food. There are some fundamental tests of culinary knowledge and ability - Filleting whole fish, making hollandaise, cooking a sunny-up egg. In the Thai kitchen, it’s making Pad Thai from scratch. If some kid came to me off the street wanting to work for me, “I’d say okay, FNG (f***ing new guy), make Pad Thai!”
You can’t fake good Pad Thai. There are two universes that you must master when making this dish:
1) The sauce. It’s a magical combination of tamarind, fish sauce, sugar, Siracha, vinegar and lime juice. You have to have taken a potions class just to get it right. On top of those ingredients, every chef has that magic item like eye of newt or pixie dust to make it theirs.
2) Cooking the damn dish is like the quest for bloody fire. How long did you soak your rice sticks? Did you soak in hot water to start gelatinizing the noodles for that perfect chewy mouth feel? Did you crack your eggs into the pan at the perfect time and have them just coagulate? Then your proteins, did you go for chicken or shrimp? Argh… If you woke up on the wrong side of the bed or had a fight with your partner the night before it’s a guarantee your Pad Thai is going to be FUBAR! Watching a chef make pad Thai is like reading their tealeaves. The minor way they spread the noodles around in the pan, how much heat are they applying, that perfect point of sauce absorption - you will know how skilled they are and if they are in a shitty or good mood! It’s truly an amazing art!
So why am I so pissed off and unappreciative of this glorious dish? Could this be my own psychological tealeaves? My therapist would say it’s a classic case of transference, unconscious misdirection of feeling. But it’s food, dammit! I’m not kicking my dog or giving my partner extra grief at home. I’m also not making sub par Pad Thai in the restaurant. On the contrary, I’m so obsessed with it right now, I’m making sure each one goes out as perfect as we can get it! Who the heck knows. But Pad Thai, I’m really pissed at you right now….