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A well-constructed pad Thai is singularly comforting, with its saliva-inducing combination of salty, spicy, sour, sweet, the crunchy dusting of peanuts and lick of fresh lime juice. Its ability to reverse the effects of late-night boozing or raise you magnanimously from the depths of hangry has earned it a place in the pantheon of beloved Thai dishes. It’s hard to compete with, but there is a raft of oft-overlooked noodles that deserve a chopstick poke, too. Here’s our roll-call of favourite other Thai street noodles.
Often bastardised, follow a few rules to do this dish right: don't skip the dark soy as it gives the noodles their handsome colour. What makes this dish sing is the distinctive hit of freshly ground white pepper - there is no substitute.
Sticky sweet oyster sauce, bright holy basil, a hit of chilli - just try and make a mediocre version of this Bangkok-in-a-bowl street food classic.
Noodles in gravy? Say what. A creature comfort dish of smoky wok-charred chewy rice noodles in yellow bean gravy. It’s one of Thai guru David Thompson’s midnight-snacking go-tos.
These deliciously chewy, mung bean-based noodles are habit-forming. The noodles come dried, which makes this a handy stir-fry to have in your arsenal when you need a crazy fast noodle dish on the table.
When it comes to choosing fresh rice noodles, try to buy ones that come in a block, which you can then cut noodles from to your desired width, rather than pre-cut noodles. Ones that haven’t been refrigerated are also handy, a guarantee that they’re made fresh daily. Your best bet to find these is at Asian grocers. These will cook up better, with less chance of ending up gluey and breaking. Cut the block into strips and separate the noodle strands with your hands. For a single serve, 200 g fresh noodles per person is a good amount – this deceptively won’t look like it will feed a hungry person but don’t be tempted to supersize the portion.
Noodles are a blank canvas for adding whatever vegetable or protein you like, just heed this advice:
• Slice your choice of raw meat thinly, the thinner the better, and against the grain for max tenderness.
• If using already cooked protein (like last night’s leftover roasted chicken, barbecued pork or roasted Chinese duck), add at the end of the cooking.
• Remember, though, noodles should not be a garbage dump. Stick to only one type of vegetable (not a medley - and no carrots, please) that delivers a fresh crunch (gai lan/Chinese broccoli never fails to please).
Say goodbye to gluey matted noodles – you’ve been doing it wrong all this time
The trick to not ending up with a gloopy blob of rice noodles (we’ve all been there) is not to skimp on the amount of oil (otherwise they’ll stick to the wok; hey, who said noodles were virtuous?) – a good rule of thumb for a single serve is 25 ml per 200 g fresh rice noodles, which is enough oil to cook any added raw protein. However, if you’re adding protein that is already cooked (like peeled prawns), you can get away with using only 20 ml oil per 200 g noodles.
Wait until your oil is smoking hot – literally, you heat the oil until you see wisps of smoke – before adding the noodles to the wok. Once they’re in, most importantly, do not toss your noodles too much (only every minute or so) as you want them to sear on the base of the wok to develop a crust and an irresistibly charry flavour.
If you don’t have a wok, you could use a large frying pan (just like you could wash dishes in your bathroom sink). Our advice, if you’ve nothing but a frying pan (besides the obvious: invest in a wok – they’re cheap!), is to cook one portion at time.
Follow these tips (critical when attempting laad naa) and you’re guaranteed zero mushy noodles every time.
The finishing touches
You’re probably familiar with the small spice and condiment sets atop tables in Thai joints. These kreung brung typically contain roasted chilli powder, pickled chillies, freshly sliced chillies in fish sauce and white sugar. Thai people prefer to season their dishes at the table, allowing each individual to ramp up the sweat, pucker and sweetness to their own liking. There’s no reason to stop at these traditional accompaniments, though. Top your wok-fired noodles with these non-conventional tidbits to add texture, crunch and complexity:
• Pickled bean sprouts: A mop of these tastes great on pad kee mao. Cover 60 g (1 cup) bean sprouts with 250 ml (1 cup) brown rice or white vinegar and allow to pickle for 15 minutes.
• Pickled coriander or Thai basil stems: A genius zero-wastage idea to use up the stems after you’ve added the leaves to the main dish, like this pad see ew. Roughly chop the stems, cover with 80 ml (⅓ cup) brown rice or white vinegar and allow to pickle for 15 minutes.
• Sweet pickled tomato: When you need a tangy sweet lift to balance a salty noodle dish, like pad woon sen, reach for these. Simmer 125 ml (½ cup) brown rice or white vinegar with 1 tbsp white sugar for 5 minutes over medium heat. Remove from the heat, add 6 grape or cherry tomatoes (halved), 2 bruised garlic cloves and 1 small dried red chilli and allow to marinate for 15 minutes. This is also killer with a lacy fried egg over rice.
• Crushed chilli-lime pork rind: We don’t miss an opportunity to sneak pork crackling into a dish. Crush ½ cup store-bought pork rind (sold like bags of chips at Asian grocers) in a mortar using a pestle until roughly ground. Add 1 tbsp roasted peanuts and crush until roughly ground. Add ½ teaspoon roasted chilli powder, and grate over the zest of 1 lime. Stir to combine. Sprinkle with abandon.
And, after all this, you’re still unconvinced of giving underdog noodle dishes a go, and find yourself reaching for pad Thai, here is our ultimate recipe, complete with video instructions.
Photography by Sharyn Cairns. Styling by Lee Blaylock. Food preparation by Tiffany Page.