The Non-Thai Origins of Pad Thai

How did foreign cuisine become Thailand's national dish?
Food is served to customers at a restaurant at the Amphawa floating market in Thailand's Samut Songkhram province. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

Pad Chinese doesn't have the same ring to it, but it might be a bit more accurate.

Pad Thai, the now-ubiquitous noodle dish made with chewy, stir-fried rice noodles, vegetables, bean sprouts, peanuts, and egg, among other things, is so popular it’s become the de facto measure by which Thai restaurants in New York, London, and other storefronts around the world are judged. But not too long ago, it could hardly be found in Thailand. That is, until Plaek Pibulsonggram, or Phibun, as the late Thai prime minister is also known, introduced it to his people.

The popularization of the noodle dish, as it turns out, was but one of several measures taken by Thai authorities in the 1930s and 1940s to both Westernize and modernize the country. The others, as The New York Times noted over the weekend, included changing the country’s name from Siam to Thailand, banning local languages and dialects from the nation’s schools, and promoting the word sawasdee as a means of greeting. “Part of Phibun’s nation-building strategy was to develop 'Thai-ness' and impose a ‘Thai Great Tradition’ to demonstrate the strength and unity of the Thai nation,” Penny Van Esterik wrote in her book Materializing Thailand.

But pad Thai wasn’t just about unity; it was also about nutrition. The late 1930s were a particularly difficult time economically for the country, and rice noodles, which were both cheap and filling, provided a much-needed antidote. Couple that with vegetables, bean sprouts, and inexpensive protein, and it was the perfect, nutritious meal. “[Phibun's] series of decrees from 1939–1942 suggested what could be done to strengthen the Thai economy, to instill national image and pride—and to improve the national diet. Popularizing a noodle dish was one means to that end,” Esterik wrote. Phibun’s government not only disseminated the recipe for pad Thai, but encouraged street vendors to make and sell it throughout the country.

“It may be the original fast food in Thailand,”  Nitya Pibulsonggram, Thailand’s former ambassador to the United States and former minister of foreign affairs, told Gastronomica in 2009.

What’s most fascinating about pad Thai, however, is that it probably isn’t even Thai. Noodles, stir-fry, and, especially, noodle stir-fries are quintessentially Chinese. In fact, just about every ingredient found in pad Thai isn’t native to the people after whom the dish is named. “The only really Thai ingredient is the pounded dried chillies,” the Bangkok Post admitted in February. Even the dish’s full name, kway teow pad Thai nods to its Chinese origins (kway teow is Chinese for rice noodles). “Its name literally means ‘Thai-style stir-fried noodles,’ and for a dish to be so named in its own country clearly suggests an origin that isn’t Thai,” local chef Kasma Loha-unchit notes in her own recipe. Indeed, the Thai seem to agree—in Thailand, it’s explicitly referred to as a Chinese noodle dish.

There were some 11,600 Thai restaurants worldwide in 2007, many of which have donned the name of Thailand’s most popular noodle dish, according to Gastronomica. Given that pad Thai can now be found in more than 2 million Google entries, it would certainly seem unfit to call it by any other name. But it wouldn’t necessarily be wrong, either.

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Roberto A. Ferdman is a reporter at Quartz, where he focuses on Latin American business and economics.

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