Beyond Pad Thai

Don’t get me wrong, I love pad thai. Pad thai is incredibly delicious, its always cheap, and it makes for some of the best late night street food you’ll ever get your hands on. I’m just here to point out that Thai food has a whole lot more to offer beyond this iconic noodle dish. I was lucky enough to backpack (and eat) my way accross Thailand earlier in the year, and I made it a personal mission to dig as deep into the Thai food culture as I possibly could.

Along the way I learned that Pad Thai is not actually as traditional as I once thought. Although now considered to be one of Thailand’s national dishes, pad thai was originally introduced in the 1940s  a result of a government sponsored recipe contest aimed at weaning the Thai population away from rice based cuisine. In other words, the Thai government was interested in freeing up more of their domestically produced rice for export purposes. While a story like this may not boost your confidence in a country’s culinary traditions, the mere fact that the Thai government is putting together state sponsored recipe contests should tip you off as to just how seriously the Thai people take their food.

Shopkeepers setting up for the morning market in Chiang Mai.
Shopkeepers setting up for the morning market in Chiang Mai.

Thai cities are fuelled by their vibrant markets, and its not uncommon to see Thai businessmen cruising the morning markets on their way to work, poking in and out of shop keepers’ stalls just to see what fresh offerings the market has available on that particular day. Food is not only a cultural staple for the country of Thailand, but its also a source of national pride. That’s why it always depresses me when I head out for Thai with friends, and the waiter is forced to deliver three or four orders of Pad Thai (and possibly rolling his eyes at the same time). If you are interested in branching beyond the obvious, read on.

Thais know seafood
As a country that features a whole lot of coastal geography, its no surprise that the cuisine of Thailand would feature a lot of seafood. Whether it be squid, shrimp, fish, crab, or even frog, you won’t be disappointed. One of the best meals I had in Thailand was a whole fried grouper that was served in bubbling hot green curry sauce. While you are unlikely to find such a dish here in Canada, most restaurants here will offer some sort of stir fried calamari dish, which is often served alongside Chinese broccoli. Its a great way to get acquainted with how the Thai handle seafood.

Fried prawns at the Chiang Mai day market.
Fried prawns at the Chiang Mai day market.


A handful of panang curry with beef and Thai eggplant. You'd be amazed at how many items are sold in bag form at a Thai market
A handful of panang curry with beef and Thai eggplant. You’d be amazed at how many items are sold in bag form at a Thai market

Get to know Thai curries
Thai curries differ from a lot of Indian or Pakistani curry since they almost universally feature coconut milk as a main ingredient. This gives Thai curry its very distinct creamy and somewhat sweet character. There are different varieties of curry to be found throughout Thai cuisine, ranging from the mellower yellow curries (which feature no chili pepper component) to the fiery green curries (which feature fresh, insanely hot green chilies). Think of red curry as an intermediate curry; it is made with dried red chilies, which are still spicy, but not nearly as intense as their fresh green counterparts. Curry is generally served with Rice in Thai cuisine, and it can contain any number of proteins depending on who is preparing the dish. My favorite blend is definitely the panang variety, which is simply red curry paste blended with peanuts. Most Thai restaurants that are worth visiting here in Toronto will offer panang curry, and it often features beef as a protein component.


Duck soup

Try the duck
As with many Asian cuisines, Thai food features a good amount of duck. Modern Thailand features a large contingent of migrant Chinese workers who have since infused a few key elements of Chinese cooking into the current culinary landscape of the country. This roasted duck and wonton soup is a perfect example of how the Thais can put their own unique spin on anything. If you are ever in a Thai restaurant that features anything even remotely similar to this dish: order it. The combination of rich broth, duck, and noodles will blow you away.


Tom kha gai is a good place to start exploring
To me, tom kha gai is a great way to get yourself acquainted with what real Thai food is all about. This Thai coconut and chicken soup perfectly exemplifies what Thais do best when it comes to cooking: balancing sweet, spicy, sour and bitter flavors all at once and in a big way.  This soup is flavored by infusing sweet coconut milk with fiery chilies and galangal, which is a variety of Thai ginger. The effect that a good tom kha gai will have on your taste buds is nothing short of a religious experience, and its a great way to start a meal.

I’m ignoring everything you just said. I’ll only eat pad thai
If you are some kind of weird pad thai purist and none of the above has piqued your interest then I guess all I can do is point you in the right direction. If you want to make sure you are eating legitimate pad thai, then there are a few things to keep in mind. First off, make sure you are eating pad thai that contains tamarind. Authentic pad thai gets its distinctive red coloring from tamarind juice, which is used to flavour the noodles as they fry in the wok. If your pad thai doesn’t have tamarind in it, then its nothing but a bastardized Western version of the real thing. If you ever come across a restaurant that is serving you pad thai with whole garlic cloves in it, then you know you are eating the real deal. Cooks in Thailand never dice garlic before they fry it in a wok. It is always added up front, whole, and with the skin on. Chances are if a restaurant is working this hard to keep things authentic, they’ll be doing everything else right too. Don’t be afraid to season up your pad thai, either. You are expected to tweak your dish to your liking with all of the dried or fermented chilies, fish sauce, and other condiments that most Thai restaurants will provide for each table.

Where to get it in Toronto
Luckily it is actually not that difficult to get legitimately good Thai food in this fair city of ours. There is a whole lot of bad Thai food in this city as well, but if you know what to look for you can get pretty close to the real thing. Right now my default Thai restaurant is Pi-Tom’s,  located at the corner of Jarvis and Dundas St. East. Everything I have eaten there has been phenomenal, and their menu contains just about everything I’ve referenced in this post. For something perhaps a little less authentic, but still downright incredible try their lamb curry. Despite the fact that I didn’t see a single lamb dish in the two months I spent in Thailand, this dish is still one of my favourite menu items at Pi-Tom’s. Best of all, you can order online and they deliver.

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