Pad Thai, that delicious tangle of rice noodles, tamarind, fish sauce, tofu, egg, shrimp, spring onion, bean sprouts and peanuts, is ubiquitous in Bangkok and on Thai restaurant menus worldwide. At first look, it’s the quintessential Thai dish—a perfect balance of sour, salty and sweet, with bonus umami, chew and crunch, plus chili heat if you want it.
Pad Thai (or phat Thai) is a relative newcomer in food history terms. The dish was popularized and possibly even created by Prime Minister Plaek Pibulsonggram—better known by his nickname Phibun—in the 1940s. Phibun was convinced that Siam, as the country was then known, needed something to bring together its disparate collection of often-impoverished communities, some of which spoke distinct dialects. Beyond wealthier, developed centers like Bangkok, parts of the country were still very poor and he wanted to both modernize and westernize it. Finding a national dish to promote appealed to the government (which also banned dialects from schools and changed the country’s name to one which referenced the ethnic roots of the many citizens descended from the T’ai people, originally from Yunnan, China).
Phibun didn’t just eat pad Thai at home: his government distributed the basic recipe across the country, and encouraged street-food traders to serve it from wheeled wooden carts. Many Thais had until then been subsisting on a diet of rice, chili paste (nam prik) and leafy vegetables. Pad Thai was cheap, tasty and far more nutritious, even more so as chicken, pork or seafood were added in the following decades.
Despite being named after Thailand, the noodles that make its base are without doubt Chinese, as is the way they are stir-fried; the vegetables are cooked using techniques found in eastern China. The dish did its job, though, and helped create both a culinary and a cultural national identity, making the fact that pad Thai is really a foreign hybrid created only 75 years ago virtually irrelevant to modern diners.
Som tam, or green papaya salad, is found throughout Thailand. But the dish started life on the vast plains of the Isan region in northeastern Thailand, where flavors from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam find their way onto the table, along with sticky glutinous rice, which is served with most meals, just as it is in Laos. Som tam is much more than a sometimes mouth-puckeringly sour salad: it is a gateway to understanding this unique part of Thailand, which is unlike both the mountainous north (where Chinese and Burmese dishes can be found) and the coastal south (which is influenced by Malaysia, Indonesia and Islam).
While the majority of Thai dishes strive to balance sweet, sour and salty, Isan food comes loaded with fermented fish and punchy chilies, making it very pungent, very hot or very sharp. (It also features a wide range of insects and amphibians, once essential for survival and now served as treats and snacks.)
The powerful combination of shredded unripe papaya, which is plentiful in the region, dressed with pounded chili, fermented fish sauce, dried shrimp, garlic and lime is rather addictive. Beyond Isan, palm sugar is often added to the dressing and the sourness and heat are toned down to suit the tastes of more moderate Thai palates, as well as of tourists. In the late 1800s, a new railway connected Ubon Ratchathani in Isan to Bangkok and drove migration south. When newly arrived Isan people made som tam for Bangkok residents, they realized they needed to tone it down a notch; today, diners are often asked to specify how they’d like it to be made.
A long-running dispute surrounds the origins of mussaman (or massaman) curry, a rich meat and potato dish made with a complex blend of spices, including tamarind, galangal, cardamom, cumin and nutmeg. In his seminal cookbook, Thai Food, David Thompson suggests the lengthy recipe came from Persia to the Thai court in the 16th century, when the country had become a hub for trade between the East and West. In Thailand—The Cookbook, Jean-Pierre Gabriel states that it is Malaysian. Other writers think it must have come from India. Even its name is argued over: it clearly has an Islamic past but is it taken from Thailand’s sizable Muslim community, a corruption of the old word ‘musulman’? Or is it simply a ‘sour’ southern Thai curry, from the Malay word ‘masam’?
Mussaman uses ingredients that don’t often appear in other Thai recipes, adding to the confusion. Unlike coconut, lime, shrimp and the fish which teem in local waters, many of its spices would have had to be imported, an expensive undertaking in centuries past.
Its origins will remain uncertain, but like pad Thai and som tam, mussaman curry has assimilated beautifully into the Thai kitchen, which cleverly absorbs all sorts of styles and flavors from visitors, invaders and the countries which surround it without losing its own sweet-sour-salty-hot identity. Food is at the very center of life here. As Mina Holland writes in The Edible Atlas, one Thai colloquialism for ‘How are you?’ translates into English as ‘Have you eaten rice yet?’
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