Vegetarian Pad Thai at Home

December 30, 2009 at 2:15 am (Derek's faves, East and SE Asia, Nancie McDermott, Other, Pasta, Starches, Tofu, unrated)


I love paht thai, but I rarely order it in restaurants anymore because I’m always disappointed by the oily, bland mockery they serve.  Restaurant pad thai is invariably insufficiently sour, and often too sweet.   Proper pad thai requires a careful balance of sweet, salty, and sour, as well as warm heat and a strong peanut flavor–two other features that are often lacking in restaurant versions of this popular dish.  Traditionally, pad thai is made with salty dried shrimp and fermented fish sauce.  Nancie McDermott, in her book Real Vegetarian Thai, suggests that vegetarians substitute Asian bean sauce (dao jiow), a pungent condiment made from salted, fermented soybeans.  She says that either the “brown bean sauce” or “yellow bean sauce” will work fine.  McDermott’s excellent cookbook includes a recipe for vegetarian phat thai that is superb, if decadent.  If you’re going to eat pad thai, and don’t have any excellent Thai restaurants around, I strongly suggest making it yourself rather than settling for another mediocre mockery.  Here’s Nancie’s recipe, with a few adjustments to reduce the oil content and speed up the process just a little.

Ingredients:

  • 1/4 cup vegetable stock
  • 2 Tbs. Tamarind liquid (see below) or freshly squeezed lime juice
  • 1 Tbs. Asian bean sauce (see above)
  • 1 Tbs. sugar
  • 2 tsp. soy sauce
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 4 ounces dried rice noodles, the width of linguine or fettuccine [I prefer the thinner noodles]
  • 3 Tbs. oil (divided)
  • 8 ounces firm tofu, cut into slender 1-inch-long rods
  • 1 Tbs. coarsely chopped garlic (4 to 6 cloves)
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten [I prefer two]
  • 1/2 tsp. ground red chili pepper flakes
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped salted, dry-roasted peanuts
  • 2 cups bean sprouts
  • 3 green onions, whites thinly sliced crosswise and tender green tops cut into 1-inch lenghts
  • 1 lime, quartered lengthwise
  • 2 cups cauliflower in small florets, lightly steamed until almost soft  [not in the original recipe, but I like this addition—may need to increase the salt amount a bit]

Instructions:

  1. Place the dried rice noodles in warm water to soak for 15 to 20 minutes.
  2. Combine the tamarind liquid, Asian bean sauce, sugar, soy sauce, and salt in a small bowl.  Chop the garlic and let it sit to develop its enzymes.
  3. Slice the tofu.  In a 12-inch nonstick skillet or large wok, heat 1/2 Tbs. olive oil.  When hot, add the tofu, turn heat to medium-high, and cook, flipping occasionally, until tofu is lightly browned on all sides.  (If you prefer, you can deep fry the tofu.)  Sprinkle the tofu with salt and nutritional yeast for more flavor and color.  When tofu is cooked, transfer it to a large plate or a serving platter.
  4. While the tofu cooks, crack and lightly beat one egg.  Add the other 1/2 Tbs. of olive oil to the still hot skillet, then add the chopped garlic and toss until golden, about 1 minute.  Add the egg and tilt the pan so it coats the surface in a thin sheet.  As soon as it is opaque and beginning to set, scramble it well and transfer it to the serving platter that’s holding the tofu.
  5. At this point the noodles should be very limp and white. Drain.  You should have about 2 – 2.5 cups.  Set the noodles near the stove.
  6. Add 2 Tbs. of oil to the same pan and heat for 30 seconds.  Add the softened noodles and pull the noodles into a thin layer covering the surface of the pan.  Then scrape them down into a clump again and gently turn them over.
  7. Add the sauce mixture and the vegetable broth to the pan and toss well.  Spread the noodles out into a single layer again.  The noodles should soften and curl into ivory ringlets.  Add the chili flakes and half of the peanuts and turn the noodles a few more times.
  8. Set aside half the bean sprouts for garnish.  Add the remainder to the pan along with all the green onions and the cooked egg and tofu.  Toss well and cook until the bean sprouts and green onion tops are shiny and beginning to wilt, 1 to 2 minutes more.  Transfer to the now-empty serving platter, and squeeze the lime wedges over the top.  Garnish with the remaining peanuts and bean sprouts and serve at once.

This recipe makes one massive restaurant-sized dish, 2 large home-sized main dishes, or 4 small or appetizer-sized servings.  If you want to make more, McDermott cautions that you can’t simply double the recipe.  She says that you have to just make another recipe as a second batch–even in Thailand, expert chefs make only a batch or two at a time.

My notes:

I’ve reduced the oil used to fry the tofu and egg, but haven’t tried reducing the oil used to cook the noodles.    The current version is very rich tasting, but not quite as greasy as Thai restaurant noodle dishes.

I’ve made this recipe without the bean sauce and with water instead of vegetable broth. It’s still good but lacking a bit of saltiness and pungency.  The combination of sugar, tamarind and lime juice really add the right sweet and sour punch that’s so essential to pad thai.  Next time I make this I might try adding brown sugar instead of white, and see what the extra molasses does for the flavor.  The last time I made this I felt like the peanut flavor wasn’t coming through enough, but maybe my peanuts were just too old, or I didn’t chop them small enough.  I also didn’t really taste the egg.  Mine was quite small–next time I might use two eggs.

The raw bean sprouts really add a nice crunch.  If you can’t find them, I’d suggest adding something else crispy, maybe fresh water chestnuts.

Derek likes this recipe a lot.  He says its better than most (but not all) restaurant versions of pad thai that he’s tried over the years.

Peter Berley also has a recipe for Pad Thai in his cookbook Fresh Food Fast, but it is a less traditional recipe.  It calls for shiitake mushrooms, grated carrot, smoked tofu, romaine lettuce, cilantro, and 1 cup of coconut milk.   But it doesn’t have any peanuts!  It gets its sourness from rice vinegar, its heat from Tobasco sauce, and its sweetness from maple syrup or honey.   I’d be curious to try it, but I don’t think it will quite taste like pad thai.  Berley pairs his pad thai with a recipe for broccoli salad with ginger vinaigrette, which seems like a nice combination.

Update Aug 2010:

I made this recipe again (but doubled it) to serve four people for dinner.  We used the fermented soy paste this time so Derek cut the salt in half.  I also added 3 eggs total (for 2 recipes) and 1/2 medium head of cauliflower (sauteed).  I used the widest rice noodles this time and I soaked them in hot water for probably an hour, but I don’t think my water was hot enough, because the noodles weren’t cooked enough.  I think the hot water needs to be hot enough that you don’t want to stick your hand in it and leave it in.  It won’t burn you (not boiling), but it needs to be quite hot.  Also, I would have added a little more chili flakes.  1/2 tsp. wasn’t quite enough for me.  I quite liked the addition of the cauliflower, but I still couldn’t really taste the eggs.  My tofu was a bit bland.  I need to remember to salt it when it’s cooking.  I couldn’t find any limes and so we used lemons to garnish, which worked out okay.  Also, I felt like the ratio of noodles to other stuff was a little off.  Maybe it’s just because I used the fat noodles, and they clump together…  Still, next time I’d try using 5 ounces rather than 4 ounces.  Our two batches made more than enough for dinner for four.  The only side dish I made was a broccoli salad.  I would still say that this recipe makes 1 huge, restaurant-sized portion, 2 quite large home portions, 3 medium portions (good if you have some side dishes), or 4 appetizer-size portions.  With the addition of an extra egg,  an extra ounce of noodles, and some cauliflower or cabbage, then this recipe might make 3-4 large home portions.

Update Dec 2011:

I made this recipe as an appetizer for a Thai meal, except I increased the noodles to 5 ounces and used two medium eggs and about 2 cups of small florets of cauliflower (a little pre-cooked).  I made about 1.5 sauce recipes to compensate for the additional bulk. I baked the tofu rods on an oiled cookie sheet.  We used the soybean paste and cut the salt in half, but the final dish didn’t seem quite balanced.  It didn’t taste very oily or salty or sweet or hot–more sour than anything else.  Maybe I put too much tamarind in it?

The recipe with my modifications made a good-sized appetizer for four people, with even a tad left over.

Nutritional information without the bean sauce (which I couldn’t find in the database).  As you can see, this is a very high calorie dish–essentially restaurant levels of calories, salt, and fat.  Macronutrients:  44% fat, 17% protein, 39% carbs.  To reduce the calories, I’d halve the peanuts and oil.

Serving Size: 1/4 recipe
Amount Per Serving
Calories 434
Total Fat 22.4g
Saturated Fat 3g
Trans Fat 0g
Cholesterol 56mg
Sodium 979mg
Carbohydrate 45.2g
Dietary Fiber 2g
Sugars 3.5g
Protein 19g
Vitamin A 3% Vitamin C 15%
Calcium    6% Iron 18%

Comparison of three recipes

Real Veg Thai Bittman Alton Brown To try next time
1/4 cup vegetable stock none 3/4 cup boiling water 1/4 cup veg. stock
2 Tbs. tamarind paste 2 to 4 tablespoons tamarind paste + 2 tablespoons rice vinegar 1 ounce tamarind paste + 1 Tbs. rice wine vinegar 3 Tbs. tamarind paste
1 Tbs. sugar 1/3 cup honey 2 Tbs. palm sugar 2 Tbs. brown sugar
1 Tbs. Asian bean sauce + 2 tsp. soy sauce + 1 tsp. salt 1/4 cup fish sauce (nam pla) 2 Tbs. fish sauce + 2 tsp. salted cabbage 1 Tbs. Asian bean sauce + 2 tsp. soy sauce + 1/2 tsp. salt
4 ounces dried rice noodles, fettucine/linguine width 4 ounces fettuccine-width rice stick noodles 4 ounces rice stick noodles 5 ounces rice noodles
3 Tbs. oil 1/4 cup oil 1-2 Tbs. oil 3 Tbs. oil
8 ounces tofu 8 ounces pressed tofu 6 ounces marinated tofu 8 ounces tofu
1 Tbs. coarsely chopped garlic (4 to 6 cloves) 1 garlic clove, minced 2 tsp. minced garlic 1 Tbs. garlic
1 egg 2 eggs 2 eggs 2 eggs
1/2 tsp. ground red chili pepper flakes 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes chili flakes to taste 3/4 tsp. chili flakes
1/2 cup finely chopped salted, dry-roasted peanuts 1/2 cup roasted peanuts, chopped 1/2 cup roasted salted, peanuts 1/2 cup peanuts, chopped
2 cups bean sprouts 1 cup mung bean sprouts 3 ounces bean sprouts 2 cups bean sprouts
3 green onions 1/4 cup chopped scallions 1 cup chopped scallions 3 large green onions
1 lime, quartered 2 limes, quartered 1 lime, quartered 1 lime
none 1 small head Napa cabbage, shredded (about 4 cups) + 1/4 cup chopped cilantro 1 Tbs. dried shrimp 1/4 head cauliflower (2 cups raw florets?)

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