I tried for over a decade to crack the pad thai code. I tasted countless plates of it at different restaurants, and my favourite was always pad thai from the (now long gone) Boua Thai restaurant. I could never recreate the tangy, spicy, sweet flavour in quite the same way. I could never get the texture of the noodles right. I tried using coconut milk, making a peanut sauce, using rice wine vinegar, cooking sherry, the "vegetarian fish sauce" they sell at the Asian supermarket (two words: never again). I never got it right. Internet research was almost entirely useless because EVERYONE has their own version of pad thai and they can vary widely in ingredients and proportions! I thought I was doomed to having to buy it every time I got a hankering, and that is what I did.
Until one day a couple of years ago, I finally got up the nerve to ask at my new favourite local thai place, Sabai Thai, what it is that makes their pad thai so tangy? The answer? Tamarind paste. DUH! And so after some more messing around with proportions and cooking techniques, I've finally got it down pat. I've made this version a dozen times since developing it, so you can rest assured it will work for you.
Pad Thai For Vegan Dummies
Makes enough for four servings
1/2 pound of dry rice stick noodles
hot tap water
3/4 cup tamarind paste
3/4 cup soy sauce
3/4 cup liquid sweetener
4 - 8 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 tbsp nutritional yeast
chili paste, to taste
1/4 - 1/2 tsp kelp powder (depending on how fishy you want the flavour)
1 lb medium, medium-firm, or firm tofu, cut into small-ish cubes
finely chopped or shredded vegetables as you like: carrots, cabbage, cilantro, fresh ginger & garlic, bean sprouts, green onions
toasted and chopped peanuts
slices of lime
oil with a high smoking point (peanut oil is best, i think)
Do not heat up your wok until all ingredients are completely prepped. Noodles should be soaked and drained. Sauce should be simmered and still warm. Tofu and veggies should be chopped. Peanuts should be toasted and chopped. People should be hungry. Like all dishes prepared in a wok, cooking goes very fast once you start, and if you pause for even a couple of seconds to do that last bit of stirring or chopping your food will likely burn or be otherwise ruined.
First, make your sauce. Blend all the ingredients in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and allow to simmer for about 20 minutes. Remove from heat.
Next, soak your rice stick noodles in hot tap water. Soak them only until they are pliable; not until they are soft or (goddess forbid) mushy. The key with pad thai is you want the noodles to actually finish getting soft in the wok, when you add the sauce. Depending on how hot your tap water is, it should take 15 - 20 minutes for them to be pliable enough.
While you're waiting for the noodles to be flexible and your sauce to cook, chop, shred minced and otherwise prepare all your other ingredients. You can even get fancy and warm your plates up in the oven if you want.
Drain your noodles and let them rest in the colander to allow water to continue to drip off.
Important: You only cook 1 or 2 servings of pad thai at a time, unless you've got a big restaurant-sized wok. Putting too much into the wok at once will result in a goopy, poorly-mixed mess.
Heat the wok on high with the oil in the bottom. Be generous with the oil; pour it all around the edges, making a circle at least twice so the entire wok has a nice coating. This ain't no diet food, fool, and after all your hard work you don't want to ruin things by letting them stick and burn, do you? Once the oil is hot, add in half of the chopped tofu and fry. Keep it moving constantly. It will start to turn golden after a few minutes. Add in half of the noodles and half of the sauce, and keep stirring, stirring, stirring. If it seems too dry, add in a bit of water, a tablespoon at a time, until the noodles really are al dente. Remove from heat immediately.
Scoop onto (warmed?) plates. I like to let people add their own veggies to their plate at this point so they get exactly what they want. Just heap it on top, finish with a tablespoon or two of chopped peanuts and a wedge or two of lime, and admonish them to eat it up while it's still hot. You've got to go back into the kitchen and repeat everything for the final two servings, though. Make sure you clean & dry the wok before starting over again. Because it really is so fast, you'll be at the table in a flash, don't worry.