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Pad Thai: Stir-Fried Freedom
Pad thai packs in many of Thai cuisine's characteristic flavors. To learn the other reason that it deserves its nationalistic name, read on:
Pad thai is such a staple of American Thai restaurants that many are simply named after the dish. In Thailand, the stir-fried meal—a mass of thin rice noodles intertwined with fried egg, tamarind, fish sauce, peanuts, and bean sprouts—is immensely popular, but it’s usually a street food; you're more likely to find it wrapped in banana leaves and newspaper or Styrofoam than atop a tablecloth. Although its distinctive blend of sweet, salty, and sour flavors remains consistent, the dish can be customized by tossing in stir-fried meats or tofu and garnishing it with the heat of chili sauce or the clarifying pucker of lime. It’s a casual recipe that, with its lack of set proportions and endless flexibility, provides an expansive canvas for the noodle artist’s own sensibilities to shine.
Though its origins have been traced to southern China and Vietnam, pad thai is bound up in Thailand’s history to an extraordinary degree. After Prime Minister Plaek Pibulsonggram changed the country's name from Siam to Thailand (or "land of the free") in 1939, he strove to build up a national identity. Pad thai became part of his strategy. As Alexandra Greeley reports in Gastronomica, the government publicized the recipe to encourage the citizens of flood-prone lands to cook food that was both sanitary—cooked in clean, hot pans—and nutrient dense, with its fresh veggies, peanuts, and eggs. The ingredients themselves not only fueled Thailand's agricultural economy but could be grown cheaply in home gardens. Pibulsonggram's government also encouraged street vendors to cook and serve the dish in mobile carts, a tradition still enjoyed on the streets of Bangkok today.