Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Skinny on Pad Thai

My son sent me a link to a long history of Pad Thai from The Morning News:
It begins:
by Pitchaya Sudbanthad

Pad Thai is the most misunderstood noodle. Its best incarnations are difficult to find outside of Thailand, even as the basic ingredients are now readily available abroad. I think back to the Pad Thais of my childhood, freshly made at a Bangkok street stall and packaged to go in banana leaves and a newspaper outer layer. A good Pad Thai slowly reveals itself: sweetness with bursts of salty and tart, depending on what is being bitten—preserved radishes, dried prawns, and bits of peanut or omelet. Here in the U.S., Pad Thai usually arrives a pile of noodles plated in a puddle of oil. Many taste as sweet as a lollipop and come stained red by ketchup. . .

Banana leaves were the styrofoam of Thailand.  That is, they were what food was 'packed' in to go.  When I was teaching in Thailand in the late 60's it was the transition period between banana leaves and the beginning of plastic.  With banana leaves, you could just toss your packaging on the ground and very quickly the ants would have eaten whatever food was left on them, and the leaves would compost.

The biggest food use of plastic bags was for drinks.  A little baggy would be filled with the drink, a straw put in, and then it would all be tied up with a rubber band and often hung on bicycle handlebars, or just letting them dangle from your fingers.  I can still see the baggies bobbing up and down on the rubber band. 

And many Thais treated the plastic bag like they did the banana leaf - they tossed it.  It was what they'd always done with banana leaves and other biodegradable wrapping.  It was the natural thing to do.  Except that plastic bags aren't natural.

Anyway, the whole Pad Thai piece is interesting.  Here's a bit from later in the piece.

". . . And this is what I believe puts Pad Thai squarely in the realm of all things Thai: the balance of absorbed influences. The ideal Pad Thai sits in tenuous equilibrium between the forces of sweet, salty, and sour in its components; none can dominate any of the other. This very instinct of absorption and balance—so foundational to Thai thinking and, by natural extension, Thai food—allowed old Siam to escape formal colonial rule by yielding just enough privileges to the imperial powers of the time—England, France, Japan, and the U.S.—so that each had an interest in keeping Siam independent of the others’ ambitions. . ."

I think I've written this before, but it bears repeating.  Thais eat two basic kinds of hot food:  1)  "with rice"  and 2) noodles.  "With rice" are meals you eat with rice - curries and stir fries and fish.  In Thailand, these are eaten with a spoon and fork.  The fork is used to push the food onto the spoon.  Noodle dishes and little snack food are eaten with chop sticks. 

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