The Secret History of Pad Thai (ผัดไทย): The National Dish of Thailand

The Secret History of Pad Thai (ผัดไทย)

Thailand's National Dish

a plate of Pad Thai (ผัดไทย)
a plate of Pad Thai (ผัดไทย)

Pad Thai may be the best-known Thai dish in the world, but in fact, it's about as Thai as spaghetti carbonara! Today, I want to dig into the secret history of this world-famous Thai dish. It all started in the 1930s, with a guy named Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram.

Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram
Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram

Field Marshal Plaek, known by his nickname "Pibun", is a complicated figure in Thai history. He was part of the 1933 coup which ended the absolute monarchy in Siam, after which he declared himself Prime Minister and served for a record 15 years.

PM Pibun had a mission to unify and modernize Siam. At first, he adopted a brand of fascism based on that of Mussolini's Italy. A wave of Sinophobia swept Siam in the 30s, leading the country to ally with Imperial Japan and join the Axis Powers during WWII. Near the end of his tenure, Pibun eventually adopted democracy, and his rule led to Thailand's modernization. During his years in office, he instituted a series of reforms including:
  • Thailand's first constitution and the end of the absolute monarchy
  • The beginning of Thai democracy and the country's first constitution
  • The absorption of the Kingdom of Chiang Mai (a quasi-independent client state to Siam) and the unification of Siam
  • The change of name from Siam to Thailand (an effort to modernize the country)
  • The introduction of the greeting "Sawatdee" (in an attempt to create an analogue to "hello"; the previous Thai greeting was "have you eaten yet?")
  • The creation of the modern Thai tri-color flag modeled after those in the West
  • The creation of the Thai National Anthem
  • A series of Cultural Mandates, most of which are still in effect today
Essentially, PM Pibun rewrote Thailand as we know it. One of the most enduring introductions that he made, was a national dish: Pad Thai.

Siam previously was a number of disjointed kingdoms and client states. To this day, the cultural regions of the north, northeast (Issan), south, and central (Bangkok) are vastly different from one another both culturally and culinarily. Pibun wanted one dish that the entire country could unify around. It couldn't be too spicy, and it couldn't favor the flavors and tastes of one region of Thailand over another. He consulted with his private Chinese chef, and eventually came up with a noodle dish that is relatively neutral and palatable for all people. He named the dish "pad Thai", or "Thai fried". Interestingly, due to its Chinese roots, it is one of the very few dishes in Thailand to be eaten with chopsticks!

Pad Thai has only been around since the 1930s, although in the West it is recognized as the most famous Thai dish. Interestingly, besides it's popularity with tourists and expats, it's far from the most popular dish within the country! I love it, though I realize that it's nowhere near a traditional Thai dish, and most Thais see it as a "foreign tourist's food".

A Few Favorite Pad Thai Spots in Bangkok

Jack's Bar

Jack's Bar doesn't serve the best pad Thai in Bangkok, nor does it claim to, however it's a dish that is designed perfectly for a farang's (foreigner's) palate! Anyway, Jack's Bar isn't so much about the dish itself (though it's an absolutely solid serving of pad Thai) as it is about the atmosphere. Built in a rickety hut atop an even more rickety pier overlooking the Chaophraya River, Jack's is a Bangkok institution. It's the cheapest riverside restaurant in the city, with giant bottles of cheap Leo beer (served over ice in the Thai style, of course), and huge servings of Thai street food classics.

Jack's Bar isn't just a cool location to enjoy a plate of pad Thai, though. It actually has really good reviews by Thai chefs and food critics alike. Don't let the basic amenities fool you. Jack's may be a relatively cheap and basic place to grab a beer and a bite to eat, but it's got some excellent food. 

a plate of pad Thai and a Leo beer at Jack's Bar in Bangkok, Thailand
a plate of pad Thai and a Leo beer at Jack's Bar in Bangkok, Thailand

Pad Thai Mr. Hui

Mr. Hui still makes Pad Thai in a traditional way, and adds several elements that make his dish so special. He has created a very old-fashioned dish using elements of his own Chinese-Thai heritage, and has chosen a few special ingredients to give his pad Thai its signature flavor:

- He cooks his dishes in pork fat instead of vegetable oil.

- He cooks everything in a big wok over charcoal instead of the more common gas stove.

- He uses duck eggs instead of regular chicken eggs, which gives the dish a richer and fattier taste.

traditional old-style pad Thai at Mr. Hui in Bangkok, Thailand
Mr. Hui's Pad Thai


Like any good pad Thai, the dishes served up at Thipsamai, Bangkok's historic and most famous original Pad Thai restaurant, are stir-fried in a smoky wok with lots of oil. Thin rice noodles (not the thick, flat noodles you'll see in more Western-style pad Thai dishes) are soaked in aromatics and lots of sweet and savory sauce, and the whole dish is tossed with big, fat shrimp. The pad Thai at Thipsamai can be ordered "wrapped in egg", a very traditional way to serve it that you won't see much outside of Thailand. I highly recommend ordering the dish this way! The noodles are wrapped in a paper-thin omelet, which adds some body and extra flavor to the dish.

shrimp pad thai at Thipsamai restaurant, Bangkok, Thailand
famous Thipsamai Pad Thai