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The art of making Thai noodles, far from Thailand – The Denver Post

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By Julia Moskin, The New York Times

In Thailand, pad thai, pad see ew and pad kee mao are just three of countless popular noodle dishes. But at Thai restaurants elsewhere, they are canon.

“Those are the three noodles that everyone who’s been to Thailand wants to make,” said Watcharee Limanon, who has moved between Bangkok and the United States since 1994, and built a small Thai culinary empire from her home in Yarmouth, Maine.

These dishes are especially popular, said Limanon, not only because they are widely available, extremely inexpensive and legendarily delicious. It is also because they have built-in “rot chaat dee” — the balance of tastes (hot, sour, salty, sweet and bitter), textures (crunchy and soft, chewy and crisp) and flavors (fishy and herbal, rich and light) that Thai cooks — and fans of Thai food — appreciate.

“You know how caramel cheese popcorn is a perfect food?” said Pailin Chongchitnant, a chef in Vancouver, British Columbia. “The sweet makes you crave salt, and the salt makes you crave sweet.” In Thai, she said, “glom glom” is the term for that can’t-stop-eating-it quality.

“That’s what a really good pad see ew is like,” she said.

Even for expert Thai cooks, getting these dishes just right in a home kitchen doesn’t come easily. Noodle stir-fries are classic street food, cooked to order by vendors who can wield giant woks and dip into dozens of bowls of ingredients. But for those who live abroad, home cooking is often the only way to satisfy their cravings. (Thai restaurants outside Thailand, for many reasons, rarely cook food to Thai tastes.)

As a longtime seeker of perfect stir-fried noodles, I asked Limanon and other cooks how they adapt these dishes for their own kitchens, with local ingredients, appliances and challenges.

First off: A wok isn’t always the right tool for the job.

The tiny Manhattan apartment that chef Hong Thaimee first moved into had a tiny stove without a single powerful burner. So she long ago started using her robin’s-egg-blue Dutch oven for stir-fries.

“Even if you can get a wok hot enough to sizzle, adding the ingredients cools it way down,” she said. “What you need is a pan that holds onto heat,” with a flat bottom that comes into direct contact with the flame. (Thai noodle vendors often use flat woks, for the same reason.)

Pad kee mao, often translated as “drunk noodles,” belongs to a larger family of “kee mao” dishes, all with the same potent combination of garlic, chiles and basil, good for late-night cravings — and possibly hangover prevention.

When balancing these big tastes, she said, every home cook follows his or her own “rot meu,” or “hand flavor.” Your uncle might have a heavy hand with pungent garlic and hot chiles; your mother might lean toward sweet basil and coconut vinegar. “There’s never just one recipe,” she said.

Although finding “authentic” ingredients can be a challenge, insisting on authenticity is often counterproductive, said Chongchitnant, who posts detailed recipe videos on her popular YouTube channel, “Hot Thai Kitchen.”

“People in Thailand are always playing around with the recipes anyway,” she said.

Chongchitnant grew up in Hat Yai, near the southern border with Malaysia, where she ate pad see ew made with egg noodles instead of the standard rice ones; later, the family moved to Bangkok, where restaurants advertise their use of spaghetti and linguine. Although the original dish is made with beef — it is related to Chinese chow fun — she said that chicken and pork are just as popular in Thailand.

In North America, if she can’t find gai lan, Chinese broccoli, she uses broccolini (a hybrid of gai lan and broccoli), or cuts broccoli into long florets, because the crunch of the thick green stems is what the dish needs.

“People assume that a good substitute for an Asian ingredient is another Asian ingredient,” she said, noting that bok choy and Napa cabbage are often suggested — unhelpfully, in her view — as good substitutes for gai lan. “That’s not always true.”

Similarly, she said, non-Thai cooks often assume that the best substitute for holy basil is Thai basil — but Italian basil is often a closer flavor match.

Jam Sanitchat has a restaurant in Austin, Texas, called Thai Fresh, that also functions as a cooking school, a market and a vegan ice cream shop. She said that on principle, despite demand from vegan and vegetarian locals, she couldn’t bring herself to make pad thai entirely without fish sauce.

“I refused for a long time,” she said. But eventually she decided that the central role of condiments — the ubiquitous fish sauce, chili powder, lime wedges, pickled chiles and more — proves that in Thailand, taste is sometimes more important than tradition.

“A French chef would never let you season his food,” she said. “We are much more open to choice.”

Understanding ingredients can be a challenge, especially for cooks who are unfamiliar with, say, the entire array of Asian soy sauces. Thai black soy sauce has a complex umami sweetness; some brands of Chinese black soy sauce are a good match for it, but others are much more salty. The solution, Sanitchat said, is to always season lightly, then taste.

A sauce that has tipped over into excess saltiness can be corrected with brown sugar. A too-spicy dish might be asking for a pinch of sugar, or the tartness of tamarind, lime or even straight vinegar. (Modern cooks in Thailand often use distilled vinegar, but the traditional product is made from coconut water.)

Sometimes home cooks have to adjust their cooking to someone else’s taste. “My kids won’t eat anything with dried shrimp in it,” said Yaowalak Good, who lives in Boise, Idaho.

She and her husband, Jerry, run ImportFood, one of the country’s biggest distributors of Thai staples and fresh produce like lime leaves, holy basil, lemon grass and bird’s-eye chiles, all grown on West Coast farms. So, she said, she simply uses fresh shrimp — as many cooks in Thailand have always done, especially along that country’s long coastline.

Limanon, who runs Thai cooking classes from her home, guided me through making pad thai (she uses a nonstick skillet).

Before the cooking even began, I learned something immeasurably useful: When using dried rice noodles for stir-fries, no matter what the package says, you should never boil them. To stay soft and springy, not mushy, they need to soak in hot water until about 70% of the way to being done.


By Julia Moskin, The New York Times

In Thailand, pad thai, pad see ew and pad kee mao are just three of countless popular noodle dishes. But at Thai restaurants elsewhere, they are canon.

“Those are the three noodles that everyone who’s been to Thailand wants to make,” said Watcharee Limanon, who has moved between Bangkok and the United States since 1994, and built a small Thai culinary empire from her home in Yarmouth, Maine.

These dishes are especially popular, said Limanon, not only because they are widely available, extremely inexpensive and legendarily delicious. It is also because they have built-in “rot chaat dee” — the balance of tastes (hot, sour, salty, sweet and bitter), textures (crunchy and soft, chewy and crisp) and flavors (fishy and herbal, rich and light) that Thai cooks — and fans of Thai food — appreciate.

“You know how caramel cheese popcorn is a perfect food?” said Pailin Chongchitnant, a chef in Vancouver, British Columbia. “The sweet makes you crave salt, and the salt makes you crave sweet.” In Thai, she said, “glom glom” is the term for that can’t-stop-eating-it quality.

“That’s what a really good pad see ew is like,” she said.

Even for expert Thai cooks, getting these dishes just right in a home kitchen doesn’t come easily. Noodle stir-fries are classic street food, cooked to order by vendors who can wield giant woks and dip into dozens of bowls of ingredients. But for those who live abroad, home cooking is often the only way to satisfy their cravings. (Thai restaurants outside Thailand, for many reasons, rarely cook food to Thai tastes.)

As a longtime seeker of perfect stir-fried noodles, I asked Limanon and other cooks how they adapt these dishes for their own kitchens, with local ingredients, appliances and challenges.

First off: A wok isn’t always the right tool for the job.

The tiny Manhattan apartment that chef Hong Thaimee first moved into had a tiny stove without a single powerful burner. So she long ago started using her robin’s-egg-blue Dutch oven for stir-fries.

“Even if you can get a wok hot enough to sizzle, adding the ingredients cools it way down,” she said. “What you need is a pan that holds onto heat,” with a flat bottom that comes into direct contact with the flame. (Thai noodle vendors often use flat woks, for the same reason.)

Pad kee mao, often translated as “drunk noodles,” belongs to a larger family of “kee mao” dishes, all with the same potent combination of garlic, chiles and basil, good for late-night cravings — and possibly hangover prevention.

When balancing these big tastes, she said, every home cook follows his or her own “rot meu,” or “hand flavor.” Your uncle might have a heavy hand with pungent garlic and hot chiles; your mother might lean toward sweet basil and coconut vinegar. “There’s never just one recipe,” she said.

Although finding “authentic” ingredients can be a challenge, insisting on authenticity is often counterproductive, said Chongchitnant, who posts detailed recipe videos on her popular YouTube channel, “Hot Thai Kitchen.”

“People in Thailand are always playing around with the recipes anyway,” she said.

Chongchitnant grew up in Hat Yai, near the southern border with Malaysia, where she ate pad see ew made with egg noodles instead of the standard rice ones; later, the family moved to Bangkok, where restaurants advertise their use of spaghetti and linguine. Although the original dish is made with beef — it is related to Chinese chow fun — she said that chicken and pork are just as popular in Thailand.

In North America, if she can’t find gai lan, Chinese broccoli, she uses broccolini (a hybrid of gai lan and broccoli), or cuts broccoli into long florets, because the crunch of the thick green stems is what the dish needs.

“People assume that a good substitute for an Asian ingredient is another Asian ingredient,” she said, noting that bok choy and Napa cabbage are often suggested — unhelpfully, in her view — as good substitutes for gai lan. “That’s not always true.”

Similarly, she said, non-Thai cooks often assume that the best substitute for holy basil is Thai basil — but Italian basil is often a closer flavor match.

Jam Sanitchat has a restaurant in Austin, Texas, called Thai Fresh, that also functions as a cooking school, a market and a vegan ice cream shop. She said that on principle, despite demand from vegan and vegetarian locals, she couldn’t bring herself to make pad thai entirely without fish sauce.

“I refused for a long time,” she said. But eventually she decided that the central role of condiments — the ubiquitous fish sauce, chili powder, lime wedges, pickled chiles and more — proves that in Thailand, taste is sometimes more important than tradition.

“A French chef would never let you season his food,” she said. “We are much more open to choice.”

Understanding ingredients can be a challenge, especially for cooks who are unfamiliar with, say, the entire array of Asian soy sauces. Thai black soy sauce has a complex umami sweetness; some brands of Chinese black soy sauce are a good match for it, but others are much more salty. The solution, Sanitchat said, is to always season lightly, then taste.

A sauce that has tipped over into excess saltiness can be corrected with brown sugar. A too-spicy dish might be asking for a pinch of sugar, or the tartness of tamarind, lime or even straight vinegar. (Modern cooks in Thailand often use distilled vinegar, but the traditional product is made from coconut water.)

Sometimes home cooks have to adjust their cooking to someone else’s taste. “My kids won’t eat anything with dried shrimp in it,” said Yaowalak Good, who lives in Boise, Idaho.

She and her husband, Jerry, run ImportFood, one of the country’s biggest distributors of Thai staples and fresh produce like lime leaves, holy basil, lemon grass and bird’s-eye chiles, all grown on West Coast farms. So, she said, she simply uses fresh shrimp — as many cooks in Thailand have always done, especially along that country’s long coastline.

Limanon, who runs Thai cooking classes from her home, guided me through making pad thai (she uses a nonstick skillet).

Before the cooking even began, I learned something immeasurably useful: When using dried rice noodles for stir-fries, no matter what the package says, you should never boil them. To stay soft and springy, not mushy, they need to soak in hot water until about 70% of the way to being done.

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