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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 aresimply named after the dish. In Thailand, the stir-fried meal—a mass of thinrice noodles intertwined with fried egg, tamarind, fish sauce, peanuts, andbean sprouts—is immensely popular, but it’s usually a street food; you’re morelikely to find it wrapped in banana leaves and newspaper or Styrofoam than atopa tablecloth. Although its distinctive blend of sweet, salty, and sour flavorsremains consistent, the dish can be customized by tossing in stir-fried meatsor tofu and garnishing it with the heat of chili sauce or the clarifying puckerof lime. It’s a casual recipe that, with its lack of set proportions andendless flexibility, provides an expansive canvas for the noodle artist’s ownsensibilities to shine.
Though its origins have been traced to southern China and Vietnam, padthai is bound up in Thailand’s history to an extraordinary degree. After PrimeMinister Plaek Pibulsonggram changed the country’s name from Siam to Thailand(or ““land of the free””) in 1939, he strove to build up a nationalidentity. Pad thai became part of his strategy. As Alexandra Greeley reportedin Gastronomica,the government publicized the recipe to encourage the citizens of flood-pronelands to cook food that was both sanitary—cooked in clean, hot pans—andnutrient dense, with its fresh veggies, peanuts, and eggs. The ingredientsthemselves not only fueled Thailand’s agricultural economy, but could be growncheaply in home gardens. Pibulsonggram’s government also encouraged streetvendors to cook and serve the dish in mobile carts, a tradition still enjoyedon the streets of Bangkok today.