By Marcus Samuelsson
In and around the Sukhumvit and Khao Sarn markets in Bangkok, I set my standard for pad thai. When people go shopping in the area, often they will pick up a pad thai for nourishment and then step into the many bars around for a beer to wash away the ensuing heat.
The pad thai is sold off carts loaded with piles of cooked noodles, surrounded by bottles of fish sauce, tamarind sauce, crushed peanuts, pickled bird's eye chiles, julienned vegetables, eggs, tofu, shrimp, meat, lemon and red pepper flakes. The dish is assembled and quickly tossed in a little wok only after you place an order.
Ask for pad thai and most vendors will ask you how you want it before they even before they touch the pan. This is what I find magical about pad thai off Bangkok's streets. Each and every serving can be made differently. And your pad thai tastes exactly the way you want it.
As my vendor tossed my snack together for me, I said, "a little more prik kee noo, please" to ask for more of the Thai chiles. I noticed that little children like theirs sweet and sour with more tamarind sauce. If you omit the fish sauce and meat, it still tastes balanced, and makes a very satisfying vegetarian dish.
Pad thai is considered one of Thailand's national dishes, and not too many places in the Western world can replicate the taste or the affordability of the street carts in Bangkok. The story is that after World War II, the government encouraged and helped the unemployed to produce rice noodles and run noodle shops. So cheap, tasty, balanced pad thai nourished not just the people in difficult times but also nourished Thai economy.
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