To understand the history of Pad Thai, you need to understand the words. Thai – that’s obvious. Pad – in Thai, the word pad means fried. There are literally dozens of dishes with the word pad in it.
The main ingredient in Pad Thai is rice noodles which are stir-fried (there’s the PAD part.) So if you were to roughly translate Pad Thai you’d have to say the dish is stir-fried noodles Thai style. The actual name of the dish is kway teow pad Thai, but has become known as just pad Thai. So where does the rice noodle part come from? In Chinese kway teow means rice noodle.
What’s in Pad Thai? There are probably thousands of variations on Pad Thai, but the primary ingredients are: rice noodles, egg, tamarind, fish sauce, dried shrimp, garlic, shallot, chili pepper, and palm sugar. There are many accompaniments that are served with the dish including lime, roasted peanuts, bean sprouts, coriander leaves and radish. Pad Thai is often topped with chicken, prawn (shrimp) or tofu.
So what’s the history of the dish? It is thought that Pad Thai was introduced by Vietnamese traders who were visiting the ancient capital city of Ayuthaya. The dish was made popular in the 1930s by the Thai government as part of a campaign to promote Thai nationalism. The government also wanted to reduce domestic rice consumption because their largest export was rice.
To help the popularity of the dish grow, the Thai government provided recipes and encouraged people to use wheeled carts to sell the dish. Because of this, pad Thai became a cheap and convenient meal – in the 1940s it only cost .03 cents to make a serving of pad Thai – according to the Thai government. It probably doesn’t cost a whole heck of a lot more today. You can get great pad Thai from a food cart for around 40 or 50 baht or $1.50 – 2.00 US.
Everyone always asks me, where’s the best pad Thai in Bangkok? That’s almost impossible to answer for two reasons, 1) there are literally thousands and thousands of stalls, restaurants and carts making it. I’ve only tried about 50 places. I’ve never had a bad dish though! 2) There are so many variations and it’s all about your taste buds. I love more lime in mine. Others hate the sour flavour lime gives the dish. So in the end, the best pad Thai is anything you like and you’ll find an abundance of it in Thailand.