Monday, June 15, 2009

Chicken and Seafood Pad Thai

Pad Thai or Thai-style stir-fried noodles is as recognizable in a Thai restaurant as a Big Mac at McDonald's. The dish encompasses all the of flavor profiles unique to Thai cooking, ie. a combination of sour, salty, sweet and spicy, also known as the four S-es. In fact, when cooking Pad Thai, one has to keep these flavors in mind and try to balance all four without overwhelming one flavor over another. This also means that one has to use the correct ingredients. For example, tempted as you might be, do not ever use soy sauce in Pad Thai as that would essentially throw the authenticity of the entire dish out the window. As a lesson for all would-be cooks out there, not all Asian dishes require the deployment of soy sauce or for that matter, ginger. The saltiness in this dish should come from nothing other than fish sauce (yet another South-east Asian favorite), period.

Pad Thai can be made either as a vegetarian dish or with seafood or poultry. For the vegetarian option, use tofu or any other type of vegetable that catches your fancy. The more popular version of Pad Thai involves the use of shrimp and/or chicken. If you are using chicken, cut the meat into thin strips so as to facilitate a faster cooking time. While Pad Thai is essentially, a Thai creation, Malaysia has its own equivalent, albeit with subtle yet influential differences. Mee Goreng or fried noodles (how's that for a straight-to-the-point description!), is a spicy stir-fried noodle dish that adds an interesting layer of tomato and potato-based sauce to the overall flavor equation.

So, how does one go about making Pad Thai? Let's start with the ingredients. Remember the four S-es? OK, as I mentioned earlier, the saltiness in the dish comes from fish sauce, the sour component is from tamarind juice, the sweetness from palm sugar (you can also use brown sugar) and the spiciness is extracted from either Thai bird chilies (if you are looking for punishing hell-fire heat) or, for the less adventurous, regular chili powder. Other ingredients include lime juice, eggs, bean sprouts, preserved turnip, roasted peanuts (chopped fine), chives or scallions (cut into inch-long segments), shallots and garlic. As for the protein, I'm using both shrimp and chicken. Of course, let's not forget the rice noodles (choose the one that is white in color, translucent, flat and about a quarter of an inch wide). Do not boil the noodles in hot water, just soak them for about an hour in warm water, enough to be pliable.

As the first step, let's sweat the shallots and brown the garlic. Next, add the shrimp and chicken and cook them most of the way. You can also cook the eggs at this time. Remove both the proteins and also the eggs from the pan so as not to overcook. Now, add the soaked noodles into the pan together with tamarind juice, fish sauce, palm sugar and the chilies. Mix them up thoroughly (add water as needed) and add the chopped roasted peanuts, preserved turnip and scallions. At the same time, throw the proteins back into the mix and keep cooking. At the last minute, add the bean sprouts and finish the dish. It's important to keep the bean sprouts as crunchy as possible, and that means very little cooking. You can garnish your Pad Thai with more roasted peanuts and scallions. Sometimes, some raw bean sprouts are also served together with the Pad Thai on the side.

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