Friday, June 24, 2011

T is for Thailand: The First Bite Experience

floating market in Thailand 

For as much as I love to eat and cook, there is something quite sad about the entire experience, and that is that the first time you have a really good dish it will be the best it will ever taste.  Even after the second bite, the taste diminishes a bit. It’s just not as exciting as the first bite. The flavors are new, and you don’t know what to expect. This does not make the meal bad by any means. Think about it…. hasn’t it ever happened to you that you order an amazing meal at a restaurant, and it is just the most delicious thing you have ever had, and then the next time you go and get the same meal, it doesn’t give you the same satisfaction as the first time you had it. This is my sad story with pad thai.

Thai basil 
I can clearly remember my first experience with pad thai. I was 19. I just finished my freshman year at OSU. I wanted to escape Ohio, I wanted to assert my newly found independence, I just needed an adventure. So I left. Far, far away to Phoenix, Arizona. My good friend Erika and I packed up my car and began a 5 day road trip out west, our destination Arizona.

It was a scorching hot day…we were hungry, and wanted to be in air conditioning. A man at a thrift store we were rummaging recommended a local Thai resturant down the way. I had never had Thai food, and was done with the adventure. We walk into a quaint room buzzing with the rush of professionals out for lunch. Not ever having Thai food I choose the popular pad thai, and man, was I not disappointed. It was sweet, yet sour, crunchy, and soft, with just a slight kick of heat. Never again have I had pad thai as delicious as this. Maybe it was because it was my first time, or maybe because I was destined to never eat good pad thai, but this week was dedicated to finding out.

Thai lemongrass 
Thailand is a large peninsula off the coast of the Andaman Sea and Gulf of Thailand. Situated between Cambodia, Laos, and Burma, Thailand was the only Southeast Asian country never colonized by the West, which has allowed it to maintain control of their unique cooking style. They do, however, take influence from their Chinese descendents and their Indian neighbors. India passes on not only Buddhism but also, seasonings such as cumin, cardamom, curry and coriander. From China comes the heat in Thai food as well as the most important staple in Thai life, rice! According the International Rice Research Institute, Thai people consume over 220 pounds of milled rice per person per year, and are the world’s largest exporters of rice!
But rice alone does not constitute as meal. Thai cuisine blends five fundamental tastes, sweet, salty, spicy, sour and bitter. The use of ingredients such as garlic, limes, chilies, fish sauce, lemon grass, basil, ginger, help create a carefully balanced dish to bring out all five flavors.

So back to pad thai. Pad thai is he famous example of a Thai dish beautifully composed of five balanced flavors. There is the sweetness of the palm sugar, the saltiness of the fish sauce, the spicy of the chilies, the sour of the tamarind, and the bitter of the lime. There is also the wonderful contrast of the soft rice noodles and the crunch of the bean sprouts and peanuts. The dish done right is perfect, and has something for everyone’s palate.

tamarind plant 

On my quest to recreate my first pad thai experience I checked out two local Thai restaurants in Columbus, Thai Lotus and Bamboo Cafe. Mind you, in the past I have also had pad thai from 3 other locations in Columbus, Tai’s Asian Bistro, Basil, and Bangkok, and only Bangkok was the only one out of the three could step to the plate (like my pun?).  I would avoid Thai Lotus altogether. This was your typical $5 cheap Americanized Asian food. It was too mushy, and didn’t even come served with green onions or peanuts. Luckily, my experience at Bamboo Café was a world of difference. Not only was the ambiance relaxing, yet exotic, the food was delicious. The pad thai was pretty good. Not too spicy, balanced flavors, but I had a major gripe with the shrimp that was just sadly overcooked.

Sadly, I never found a pad thai that brought that same excitement of my first pad thai, and I probably never will. But that the sad dilemma of a foodie in search for delicious meals. You can never recreate an experience, because the excitement is taken out, which is really half the fun. But I am okay with this….it just means I get to explore new restaurants and new dishes.   


pad thai sauce 
Asian markets are your best friend!! Asian products are way overpriced at regular super markets, so when cooking Asian, shop Asian! Pad thai calls for tamarind pulp, a sour fruit used to make the pad thai sauce. Just my luck, my local Asian market was out of tamarind pulp (didn't known tamarind pulp was a hot commodity...)....but they did have a pad thai sauce imported from yes, I cheated a little...but to my defense, I (well..Helen) had to figure out how to calm the heat because it was SPICY! So we added a little water and rice wine vinegar to the sauce. Then the best moochers in the world, my sister Jennifer and Emil (kidding kidding, i love you both), came to enjoy in the feast. Helen was also kind enough to bring some delicious white wine that she earned from baby sitting. The wine helped cool the heat of the pad thai.  The meal was absolutely delicious, easy to make, and inexpensive. Definitely one to make to share with friends.....or moochers :) 

Pad Thai
serves 4
bean sprouts
rice noodles 

  • Pad thai sauce
  • Rice stick noodles
  • 1/2 lb shrimp
  • 4 eggs
  • bean sprouts
  • carrot, chopped
  • 1/4 cup peanuts, ground*
  • green onions, sliced
  • 2 limes, sliced
  • oil

* I put the peanuts in a ziplock bag and took a hammer to it until the peanuts were in small pieces.


  1. Chop the carrots, green onions, and ground the peanuts. Also, water down the sauce if it is too spicy, and start boiling a pot of water for the noodles.
  2. Place noodles in boiling water until noodles are soften. 
  3. Drain noodles and rinse in cold water. Begin heating a wok or large saucepan with oil. 
  4. Saute shrimp and carrots until shrimp is slightly pink. With a slotted spoon take remove the shrimp and carrots from the wok. 
  5. Add noodles to the wok. Push noodles to the side and crack the eggs and scramble.
  6. Mix the eggs with the noodle and add carrots, bean sprouts , shrimp and sauce.  Stir until evenly mixed.
  7. Plate, and garnish with peanuts, green onions, and a wedge of lime.
Enjoy with a glass of white wine! 

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