Take it from a Thai person, it's hard to find a really good, authentic pad thai outside of Thailand. I've searched high and low, and concluded that the best option is to master cooking it at home. This recipe is the real deal with all the ingredients of a traditional pad thai—no compromise.
I'll share all the tips and tricks and provide substitutions for ingredients you may not have. Make sure you also watch the video tutorial because this is a dish that's better learned visually and the techniques are important to success!
Pro Tip: Pad thai is easy to make, but it isn't quick if you make everything from scratch. So to prep it for a weeknight meal, check out my post on How to Make Authentic Pad Thai in 5 Minutes!
What does REAL traditional pad thai look like?
You've probably had pad thai in your local restaurant, but what you had may not be anything like the authentic version. First, it should not have ketchup or any tomato product in it. Second, it should not be syrupy sweet. And finally, it shouldn't be just a heavy, soggy clump of noodles with bits of green onions.
Real pad thai should be:
- Stir-fried in a hot wok, so the noodles come out dry with a little smokiness, not wet.
- A good balance of sweet, salty and sour, not leading with any one flavour.
- LOADED with beansprouts which lightens the noodles and add freshness.
- Have lots of "bits" in it which gives complexity: shallots, garlic, tofu, dried shrimp, etc.
- All in all it should be a well-balanced dish that leaves you satisfied, and not heavy.
Why is it so hard to find good pad thai in restaurants?
Cooking pad thai is not that hard, but the fully-loaded, traditional version has a lot of ingredients, not all of which are easy to find. For many restaurants some ingredients may not be available, the many prep may be too complex for their simple operation, or they need to keep the cost of such a staple item low. So things get left out and substituted.
But each ingredient in pad thai contributes a flavour. Nothing in there is added just for "fluff" - so the more you take away, the less complex the flavour becomes. Sure, you can omit or substitute a few things without much harm, but past a certain point, the flavour suffers significantly.
Ingredients for Pad Thai
Here's everything you'll need, with more details on a few less common ingredients and how to substitute them.
FOR THE SAUCE:
- Tamarind paste - This is a key ingredient for the sauce, and homemade is recommended for best flavor. Here's how to make tamarind paste from pulp. A store bought one is fine to use to make life easy, but do make sure it is a product of Thailand or Vietnam, not India, and should be a brown liquid with a pourable consistency.
- Palm sugar - Choose high quality palm sugar when possible, for more info check out my ultimate guide to palm sugar. If not available, substitute equal weight of light brown sugar.
- Fish sauce - Good fish sauce is perhaps the most important thing for flavour. For more info, here's my guide to fish sauce. If you're vegetarian, check out my vegan pad thai recipe.
FOR THE PAD THAI:
- Dried shrimp - Can be omitted if not available or allergic.
- Pressed tofu (pic below) - Sometimes labeled as bean curd, this is the firmest of all tofu. Extra firm tofu can be substituted, but if you feel like they might break in the wok, pan-frying them first will firm up the exterior and prevent breaking.
- Sweet preserved radish (chai po waan, pic below) - Can be omitted if not available. These sweet-salty chewy bits of preserved daikon is always added to pad thai in Thailand. You'll likely need to go to a specifically Thai grocery store to find these, and it may come whole or pre-chopped. Japanese sweet preserved daikon, takuan, makes for a decent substitute and is much easier to find. Note that there is also a salty Thai preserved radish, which cannot be used instead.
- Chili flakes - Optional but recommended. Pad thai is really much better when it's a little bit spicy!
- Roasted peanuts
- Rice noodles - I recommend Erawan Brand size medium (pic below) which is the traditional size used in Thailand. If using a different brand, you might need to adjust the amount of water and soaking time.
- Bean sprouts - Go for mung bean sprouts, not soybean sprouts.
- Garlic chives - If you can't find these at your regular Asian store, try looking at Japanese or Korean markets also. You can substitute green onions but the two really do taste different. If using green onions, finely chop them as they have a much stronger taste than garlic chives.
- Lime wedge for serving.
Pro Tip: Emergency Noodle Soaking
Medium size Erawan Brand dry rice noodles take about 1 hour to soak in room temperature water. Brands that are thinner, such as Thai Kitchen, will take less time, but the final texture won't be as good. You can use warm water to lessen the time required, but keep an eye on them and drain the noodles once they become opaque white and completely pliable (i.e. they don't resist gravity at all.) Don't over-soak.
If you're about to cook and forgot to soak them, don't panic! They can be soaked in 3 minutes in hot off-the-boil water, but it's a bit risky so I try to avoid this. Too long in hot water and they will become too soft, so you MUST time it and place them in cold water immediately after.
How to Make Pad Thai
I highly recommend watching the full video tutorial to ensure success, but here's a bird's eye view of what you need to do:
- To make the sauce, melt and caramelize the palm sugar.
- Add water to stop the caramelization.
- Add fish sauce and tamarind and bring to a simmer.
- Off heat and let it sit until the sugar is completely dissolved.
- Cook off the shrimp (or any other protein you're using). Remove from pan.
- Saute shallots, garlic, tofu, dried shrimp, preserved radish, and chili flakes.
- Add the soaked noodles.
- Add the sauce.
- Toss until the noodles have absorbed all the sauce.
- Push the noodles to one side and add the eggs to the space you've made and break the yolks.
- Put the noodles on top of the eggs and let it cook for 15-30 seconds.
- Flip and toss to mix.
- Add the peanuts, bean sprouts and garlic chives.
- Turn off the heat and toss until the beansprouts are incorporated and slightly wilted.
- Plate and top with more peanuts and shrimp.
- Don't forget to add fresh lime before eating!
How to Make Pad Thai in 5 Minutes
Pad thai made from scratch isn't exactly weeknight-friendly because there's so much prep to do. But good news: the prep can be done days in advance so you can have pad thai on a Tuesday night in minutes, just like at a restaurant!
There are "4 levels of preparedness" when it comes to pad thai prep, all of which I explain in detail in this video, and even doing just level 1 in advance will save you a lot of time. If you've got all 4 levels done, you can cook pad thai in 5 minutes - watch me do it in real time!
FAQ's & Common Issues When Making Pad Thai
You used the wrong tamarind. You probably used "tamarind concentrate" from India, which is entirely different from the one we use in Thailand and is much more concentrated. It can be used but you'll have to dilute it. Unfortunately I've not personally used it so I don't know for sure how much water to add, but I would start with using just 1 Tbsp of the concentrate mix with 3 Tbsp water. See this video for everything you need to know about tamarind, and this video on how to make tamarind paste at home.
First, if you're struggling with getting a good texture for rice noodles, try this easier pad thai with glass noodles. It tastes just as good, and is SO much easier to perfect.
Now, your rice noodles. There are a couple common mistakes:
1) Do not boil the noodles before using. Dry rice noodles only need to be rehydrated for 1 hour in ROOM TEMP water, and they will finish cooking in the liquid of the sauce.
2) Do not crowd the pan, especially if you have a weak stove. If you crowd the pan you'll trap too much steam, which causes the noodles to boil rather than fry. I recommend making no more than 2 portions in one wok at a time, but if you want to cook a larger batch, you need to reduce the amount of water in the sauce.
Make sure you measure the ingredients correctly. This is not the recipe to "eyeball". The sauce amount is designed to be perfect for the amount of noodles, so if you eyeball the noodles and use too much, it will be too diluted.
Rest assured, you pad thai is NOT supposed to be orange! Many restaurants will add ketchup and paprika to boost the colour in order to make it look more appealing, but this is not traditional.
However, we DO make a type of pad thai that is a little orange, and that colour comes from shrimp tomalley which we render out into oil and use it to cook pad thai. Check out this easier pad thai recipe where I also show how to make shrimp oil that boosts the flavour of pad thai!
Pad thai is not a dish I recommend making for a party. It's hard to make a large amount of pad thai using a home stove—you will need to make multiple batches.
Also, the noodles don't sit well and they are best when eaten fresh off the wok. If they sit for too long the noodles will start to clump up together.
It IS possible to do it for a not-too-big party, but I would cook multiple small batches, and plan it so that people will eat them shortly after they're done.
Pad thai, and rice noodles in general, do not keep well. One day in the fridge isn't too bad; it can be microwaved or re-fried in a pan with a tiny splash of water. But after multiple days in the fridge, the noodles will harden and can't really be brought back to life. Check out my glass noodle pad thai for a version that can keep and reheat better.
Don't modify this recipe! Use my awesome vegan pad thai recipe here instead!
Yes. I'd marinate them first so they have some flavour: For 8 oz (225 g) of thinly sliced pork, chicken or beef, add 2 tsp (10 ml) soy sauce, ¼ tsp (1.25 ml) sugar and 1 Tbsp (15 ml) water. Mix well and let it sit for at least 15 minutes.
Cook it off first the same way I do the shrimp in this recipe, and toss them back to the pan at the end.
Glad you asked! My other favourite is this easy drunken noodles recipe (pad kee mao) which also comes together in just a few minutes after the prep is done. Or if you want something not spicy, pad see ew is a cult-favourite that is very simple and kid-friendly!
Watch The Full Video Tutorial!
All my recipes come with step-by-step video tutorials with extra tips not mentioned in the blog post, so make sure you watch the video below to ensure success - and if you enjoy the show, please consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. Thank you!
*If you prefer, you can also watch the video on YouTube.
This pad thai recipe is the real deal. Fully loaded with all the classic ingredients an authentic pad thai should have. Perfectly balanced flavour that is complex and not overly sweet. It's also naturally gluten-free. Vegetarian or vegan? Check out my vegan pad thai recipe.
Pad Thai Sauce
- 35 g palm sugar, chopped (3 Tbsp tightly packed)
- 3 Tbsp (45 ml) water
- 4 Tbsp Thai cooking tamarind (see note 1, and also see how to make tamarind paste from pulp)
- 2 Tbsp good fish sauce (how to choose good fish sauce)
- 4oz (115g) dry rice noodles, medium size, soak in room temp water for 1 hour (see note 2)
- 2 Tbsp dried shrimp, medium size, roughly chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, chopped
- ¼ cup roughly chopped shallots
- 3 oz (85 g) pressed tofu, cut into small pieces
- 3 Tbsp finely chopped SWEET preserved daikon radish (see note 3)
- Dried chili flakes, to taste (optional)
- 3 Tbsp (45 ml) vegetable oil
- 10 medium sized shrimp, or as many as you like (to sub other protein, see note 4)
- 2 eggs
- 2 ½ cups (120 g)bean sprouts, loosely packed
- 7-10 stalks (70 g) garlic chives, cut into 2” pieces
- ¼ cup roasted peanuts, roughly chopped
- 1 lime
- Garnishes and condiments for serving: chili flakes, roasted peanuts, bean sprouts and garlic chives.
(In Thailand, fresh banana blossom is sometimes served on the side of pad thai. I don't love them personally, but if you do and can find them, go for it!)
To make pad thai sauce (see note 5):
- Add palm sugar to a small pot and melt over medium heat. Once the sugar is melting, keep stirring until it darkens in colour (see video for colour). Immediately add water, fish sauce, and tamarind paste. The sugar will harden immediately and this is okay.
- Bring sauce to a simmer, then turn off heat. The hardened sugar will not have dissolved at this point, but let it sit while you prep other ingredients and it should be dissolved by the time you need it. Check that it is dissolved before you start cooking!
To make pad thai (see note 6):
- Cut drained noodles once with scissors so they are half as long. This makes them easier to toss and separate in the wok.
- In a bowl, combine tofu, garlic, shallots, preserved radish, dried shrimp, and chili flakes.
- Heat a wok or a large nonstick skillet over high heat and add just enough oil to coat the bottom. Sear shrimp, or whatever protein you're using, until done and remove them from pan.
- In the same wok over medium heat, add a little more oil if needed, then add everything in the tofu bowl and sauté for a few minutes until garlic starts to turn golden and shallots are wilted. If the wok looks dry, add a little more oil. (Don't skimp on oil otherwise the noodles will clump up together.)
- Turn heat up to high then add noodles and sauce. Keep tossing until all the sauce is absorbed.
- Once sauce is absorbed, you can turn off the heat and taste the noodles for doneness. If they're still undercooked, add a little more water and continue cooking, being careful not to add too much water!
- Once noodles are done, push them to one side of the pan. Add add little extra oil to the empty space and add eggs. Break the yolks, then put noodles on top of eggs and cook for about 30 seconds. Flip and toss to mix eggs into noodles.
- Toss the cooked protein back in, plus any collected juices. Then add bean sprouts, garlic chives and half of the peanuts. Turn off the heat and toss until well mixed.
- Serve immediately with a lime wedge and extra peanuts on top. For a classic presentation you can add a little extra side of bean sprouts and some garlic chives garnish.
- Be sure to squeeze a bit of lime on top before eating!
- Do not use the black, sticky "tamarind concentrate" from India as it is much more concentrated and cannot be used in the same way in this recipe. Either make it from pulp or buy the brown paste that is from Thailand or Vietnam.
- You can soak noodles in advance, drain, and keep them well sealed in the fridge for a few days. I use Erawan brand noodles. Some brands, such as Thai Kitchen, have thinner noodles and take less time. Keep an eye on them and drain once the noodles are completely pliable (no resistance when bending). No time to soak? See emergency noodle-soaking in the blog post.
- Thai sweet preserved radish is hard to find, but you can omit or use the Japanese version instead which is called “takuan” and is bright yellow. See blog post for more info.
- If using chicken, pork or beef, slice into bite-sized pieces and marinate them with just a bit of fish sauce or soy sauce so the meat isn't bland.
- You can make a big batch of sauce in advance and store indefinitely in the fridge. See this recipe for large-batch pad thai sauce.
- I recommend cooking no more than 2-3 servings at a time to avoid crowding the pan and making the noodles soggy.
- Serving Size: 1
- Calories: 682
Keywords: pad thai