Pad thai belongs to an exasperating category of food in which I would also place the breakfast pancake, the Southern biscuit and the Mexican tortilla: painfully simple in concept, simply painful in execution. The challenge involves intangibles—heat, timing, touch—that have nothing to do with the comforting math of tablespoons and half cups and are all but ineffable in the standard language of the cookbook.
Simon Leong, manager of Southern Village's Merlion, an upscale Singaporean bistro that makes one of the area's best versions of the classic Thai noodle dish, was not optimistic about my chances with his prized recipe.
"The secret is BTUs," he explains, referring to British thermal units, or what we normally call heat. "BTUs give the right color and aroma and consistency. If you cook pad thai at home, you won't get the right effect. It will take a lot of time and the noodles will be mushy and the sauce will burn. It's all about heat and timing, heat and timing."
In Merlion's notably clean and orderly kitchen, sous chef Ming Wong illustrates the point. Cooking over a gas flame that roars like the aft end of the latest Air Force toy, Wong tosses his ingredients into a smoking, oil-slicked wok, flips the entire mélange high into the air, neatly makes his catch and slides the completed dish onto a waiting plate. Elapsed time: maybe 20 seconds.
Is the home cook really doomed to wan, mushy noodles that only torment in their faint resemblance to the real thing? Leong's pessimism is not misplaced, but nor is utter defeat inevitable. The first step is to haul your electric hand warmer to the dump and purchase a gas range with some attitude. There's no need to pull your kid out of private school in order to buy a Viking or Wolf; anything you wouldn't let a kid come near will suffice.
The second step is to purchase the largest possible cast-iron skillet. I have a 17-inch skillet manufactured by Lodge ($60 via Amazon) that performs miracles when not giving me a hernia. The cast-iron skillet has crucial advantages over the usual nonstick nonsense: It becomes searing hot, and its vast area allows for maximum surface contact and rapid evaporation. Woks are superbly suited to volcanic power sources, but at home they don't become hot enough for legitimate stir-frying. One winds up letting the ingredients rest on the hot-spot at the bottom of the crater, where they steam in their own moisture. I now do all my Asian cooking as if camping on the Oregon Trail.
The third step is to advance-prep all—and I mean all—the ingredients and array them within arm's reach for immediate, no-look use. Once the initiating egg has hit pan, there's no pausing to consult, measure or chop; from the initial sizzle forward, you're riding a tiger and you have to hold on with both hands.
Merlion, a Singaporean restaurant, after all, may seem an unlikely source of pad thai wisdom, but Leong says that Singapore was pan-Asian long before esoteric hyphenations became chic.
"Singapore is the great melting pot of Asian cuisine," he says. "We don't have a lot of dishes of our own. Everything is cross-married between Indian, Malay and Chinese food."
Merlion's Shrimp (or Chicken) Pad Thai
Freely adapted for the home cook
175 grams rice noodles (weighed dry)
150 grams deep-fried tofu (see cooking instructions)
90 grams (about 1 1/2 cups, or a large fistful) bean sprouts
10 uncooked shrimp, peeled and deveined
3 tbs. dried daikon, finely chopped (see notes)
3 tbs. unsalted dry-roasted peanuts, finely chopped or ground
3 tbs. Thai fish sauce (see notes)
3 tbs. white vinegar
3 tbs. sugar
1 large egg
1 stalk scallion, cut into inch-long pieces
Kosher salt, to taste
Lemon or lime wedges, for garnish
Submerge the noodles in cold water and soak for two hours. Meanwhile, cut a block of "soft" tofu (as opposed to "silken" or "firm" tofu) width-wise into 1/2-inch slices (resembling slices of loaf cake). In a cast-iron Dutch oven or other large and sturdy pot, heat 3 inches of canola oil to 350 degrees and fry two or three slices of the tofu slices until crisp and golden brown, about five minutes. Allow the tofu to cool completely and cut into 1-inch-by-1/2-inch rectangles. (The remaining tofu slices can be refrigerated for subsequent rounds of pad thai or served with soy paste or "sweet chili sauce" as a toothsome snack.) Combine the fish sauce, vinegar and sugar. Heat briefly in the microwave and stir until the sugar dissolves.
Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Simultaneously, preheat the skillet until maximally hot. Add the noodles and tofu to the water and boil for about one minute. While the noodles and tofu cook, add a thick sheen of oil to the skillet and immediately add the egg, scrambling vigorously the moment it hits the pan. Add the bean sprouts and daikon and stir-fry. Using a handled strainer or mesh basket (see notes), remove the noodles and tofu and add to the skillet. Pour the sauce mixture directly over the noodles, avoiding direct contact with the cast iron so the sauce does not burn and evaporate. Add the ground peanuts. Gently spread the contents for maximum contact with the hot surface, allowing the noodles to dry and firm. Add the shrimp and give the ingredients several turns. Add salt to taste and the chopped scallion. The dish is done when dry and slightly caramelized, with hints of char. Garnish with lemon or lime wedges.
Rice noodles—sometimes called "rice sticks"—come in various shapes and sizes. Classic pad thai noodles are flattened white strands, about 1/8-inch wide. Merlion uses Erawan-brand "Oriental Style Noodle" (look for green packaging and an elephant logo).
Thai fish sauce, otherwise called nam pla, is a brownish, fermented liquid made from anchovy, salt and sugar. It smells like seashore rot, but it marvelously enhances a vast range of Thai and Vietnamese foods. Merlion uses Golden Boy brand.
Daikon is a long, tubular white radish common in Asian cuisine (in India and post-colonial Britain, it's called "mooli"). Dried daikon is tawny brown and preserved with salt and sometimes sugar. In Asian grocery stores, it's sold in nonperishable vacuum packs, cut into gnocchi-like chunks or raisin-like morsels. For purposes of pad thai, further mince into half-raisin bits. Leong strongly recommends the sweetened variety (look for sugar in the list of ingredients).
The noodles and tofu must be swiftly removed from the boiling water and drained. The best stratagy is to place them in a stainless steel mesh frying basket that can be lifted out of the water, eliminating the need to fish for stray noodles with a strainer.
You can omit the shrimp or replace them with chicken. Simmer half a chicken breast at 170 degrees for 30 minutes, taking care not to boil. Allow to cool. Thinly slice and follow recipe as with the shrimp.