Some of the most incredible chefs in the world don’t star in cooking shows on the food network, author best-selling cookbooks, or have their own lines of packaged foods. No, some of the best food I’ve ever tasted was cooked on a hot plate on the edge of a Thai sidewalk—and not only was it delicious, it was pulled together in mere minutes from fresh ingredients. Actually, I’ll just go out on a limb and say that some of the most underrated food in the world has to be street food: cheap, fresh, flavourful, and expertly prepared, I count as some of my best meals those I’ve stumbled upon in “restaurants” that don’t even have a name.
A lifetime ago, Arden and I spent a few months in rural Thailand and Laos doing a food security internship. We were studying how impoverished communities can adopt sustainable agricultural practices in order to become more self-sufficient and less vulnerable to interruptions in food supply. I learned a lot that summer: about poverty and character, kindness and pride, culture and community… and about how incredibly delicious Thai food is when it’s not bastardized with ketchup and copious oil in Canadian restaurants.
I’m not going to pretend this pad Thai is better than what you can get wrapped in newspaper on a humid Bangkok sidewalk, but it does have a few other things going for it: it’s vegan, can be made with ingredients that you can (likely) find, and you can have it for dinner without having to fly to Thailand. And like its inspiration, it’s flavourful, satisfying, and easy to pull together quickly.
The secret to stir-frying rice noodles so they’re toothsome, chewy and flavourful is to soak the noodles in cool water for 30 minutes before adding to the pan. Boiling them is a fast-track to bland noodles with a disappointing texture.
1/4 cup tamarind concentrate (if you can’t find it, use fresh lime juice)
1/4 cup soy sauce
2 tbsp coconut sugar (or use brown sugar, or maple syrup)
1 to 2 tsp oil, to sauté
12 oz tofu (use crumbled medium or medium-firm tofu if you want it to resemble the texture of scrambled egg, like in classic pad Thai; use cubed firm tofu if you want to stir fry proper chunks of tofu)
A few cloves garlic, minced
3 to 4 cups hearty green leafy vegetables (I’m partial to napa cabbage, because it practically disappears… perfect for springing on unsuspecting kids who will never be any the wiser. )
Other veggies: chopped mushrooms, shredded carrots, chopped celery (sorry I’m so bad at giving actual recipes, it’s just that I alwayyys make it differently, and you can too)
8 oz medium-width rice noodles, soaked in cool water for at least 30 minutes
To garnish: bean sprouts, green onion, lime wedges, basil, crushed peanuts, chilli flakes, toasted sesame seeds… whatever ya got
Whisk together tamarind concentrate, soy sauce, and coconut sugar, then set aside.
Heat your largest pan over medium-high heat and sauté tofu in a little oil until it starts to brown.
Now add the garlic and veggies and sauté until veggies start to sweat, about a minute.
Add in the soaked rice noodles and combine. I find tongs easiest from here.
Pour in the sauce and mix well; keep turning using tongs until noodles are softened (be sure to taste for doneness, at least until you can learn to recognize by sight; they will probably look done just before they are. You want them to be chewy and cooked through, but not mushy and breaking apart). This should only take a few minutes. If it starts to stick, add splashes of water or veggie broth to keep it moving. I find I need about 1/2 to 1 cup water, depending on how much liquid the greens and tofu released, and how high my heat is.
Serve, garnished with any or all (or none, I guess) of the suggested garnish ingredients. You can also fold in the bean sprouts and green onions (if using) at the end to warm them through and just wilt them.
Tamarind concentrate can vary in intensity from brand to brand, so you may have to experiment. The one I used for this is pourable. If yours is a paste, you will probably need half of what this recipe calls for (so, 2 tbsp). Just taste the sauce: you’re going for salty, sweet, and sour.
I’m the boss of scaling up recipes like nobody’s business so we have leftovers, but this is one recipe that doesn’t scale up well for two reasons: one, if you have too much food in the pan, you risk ending up with parts that aren’t fully cooked while other parts are starting to get mushy. It’s stir-fry science. And two, stir-fried rice noodles are much, much better fresh.
And now, just for fun, a little trip down memory lane…