Friday, July 6, 2012

Sap's Last Sunday

I walked in the door and saw both Sap and old pal Tom Spencer sitting at the “owner’s table”, so I limped on in and pulled up a chair. Once I showed my scar to all, Sap got a fresh bowl of jasmine rice and asked me to try out a dish that he and his roommates used to live on back when he was going to UT, living with 4 guys to an apartment, and working every second that he wasn’t studying. The dish, which isn’t on the menu, is a stir fry using sliced garlic sausage for the protein, combined with green beans, greens, onions, jalapeño slices, chunks of mild Thai pepper, garlic, ginger, a little soy sauce, a little fish sauce, some black pepper, and a pinch of sugar. Sap says that he used to make it with Spam, which was super cheap back then. “Two cans of Spam and it fed four guys for several days”, he said. All’s I know is that it was addictively delicious, and Sap, Tom, me, and waiter Will all ate our fill and there was still plenty left over. Great, quick stir fry.

I was jonesing for some som tam, and the last time I was in, Will mentioned that they had gotten a new, larger mortar and pestle, so I figured what better time to order a shredded green papaya salad. Up north and east in Isaan, where the dish originated within Thailand,
it is known as tam bak hung. The Thai som tam is very similar to the Lao salad tam mak hung and the Cambodian salad bok l’hong so those are thought to be its origins. Papaya was brought from Latin America to the Philippines by the Spanish in 1550, and spread into Thailand from Laos and Cambodia in the northeast, by way of Vietnam, and from Malaysia in the south. In present day Thailand, papaya grows wild, everywhere. The “tam” in som tam means “to crush” or “to pound”-- a verb that is most commonly used when a mortar and a pestle are involved. Som means “sour”, so the word combination som tam refers to something sour that is pounded in the mortar. The salad is listed at number 5 on the World's 50 Most Delicious Foods complied by CNN Go in 2011.

It is made from shredded, unripened papaya mixed with tomato or cherry tomato, palm sugar or a mix of white sugar and palm sugar, garlic, shallots, lime juice, and chiles. It is very common to include sections of long beans or green beans in the papaya mix, and if you get it in Isaan, or made by someone from Isaan, it might substitute pla ra fermented fish paste, or boo kem fermented and salted land crabs for the fish sauce. The salad is usually served with a mound of steamed sticky rice on the side, to soak up the dressing. If you get it in a restaurant, it will often have the sticky rice as well as a small platter of vegetables (lettuce, cabbage leaves, cucumber slices, etc) to use as edible “scoops” when eating the salad. The beauty of som tam is that it is made-to-order by the cook, or street vendor, so it is easy to customize the salad to your own liking: number of prik kee nuu chiles, saltier, sweeter, more sour, etc. It is not unusual for a Thai open-air restaurant to have a som tam vendor as a separate operator, but loosely affiliated with the restaurant.

When you’re on the street you can locate a som tam vendor by the “pok-pok” sound of their mortar and pestle as they pound the ingredients to lightly soften them.  The mortar for a vendor is usually a concave, partially hollowed-out section of log, with a pestle made of sugar plum or tamarind wood. It is the resonating sound of pestle hitting on log that makes the echoing “pok-pok”. In the home kitchen, the salad mortar might be made of fired clay, or could even be carved granite (especially from a town called Ang Sila). On the street, the vendor will take the papaya in the left hand, held in a towel, and using a smallish machete-like knife, make a rapid series of shallow, parallel, vertical cuts. She then shaves off a layer of the papaya, revealing perfect julienne strips of green papaya. Throw those and the rest of the ingredients in the mortar, pound them vigorously for 15 or 20 seconds or so with the pestle, and you have yourself a wonderful salad. You can also find it made with julienned green mango, though it isn’t really “green” mango, but a crisp-fleshed, sweet-tart variety of mango that tastes kind of like Asian pear crossed with green apple, and a faint mango edge. 

The version served at Sap’s is known as Som Tam Thai, and is made with papaya, lime juice, Thai green chiles, palm sugar, fish sauce, garlic, tomato, served with lettuce on the side, and topped with peanuts and fried dried shrimp. This version is not as spicy as the typical versions made by cooks from Isaan, which can be amazingly, brain searingly hot. The guys back in the kitchen can certainly heat it up for you if you like. Whatever heat you like it, it’s delicious.

I had never ordered Pad Thai at a Thai restaurant before, either here in the States, or in Thailand. I’ve tasted the dish when others have ordered it, but figured that it was high time I ordered me some Sap’s Pad Thai. Pad Thai ' actually means pad , or phad or phat (‘stir-fried'), and Thai or tai (‘freedom'). The word Thai means ‘freedom', but when the name of this famous noodle dish is written in Thai script, the Thai in pad Thai is not the same spelling as the word for ‘freedom', instead, it means ‘Thai-style'. So the term refers to Thai-style stir-fried noodles. Pad Thai has been called ‘The National Dish of Thailand', although that seems to be mostly because it is the Thai dish most known by Westerners and one that they know to not be spicy; and incidentally, one of the more-ordered dishes at Sap’s. If you asked any Thai on the street in-country what their national dish was, I doubt “…pad thai…” would be the answer that you received. It is, after all, a Vietnamese dish which uses Chinese ingredients. It is rare that a Thai would ever cook this dish at home these days, choosing instead to purchase it from their favorite street vendors and restaurants that specialize in the dish. It is popular as lunch, dinner, or as a late night dining option after a night of partying.

Pad Thai is a stir-fried noodle dish with a flavor combination of sweet (white sugar, palm sugar, or in the States as a cheap and easy shortcut, ketchup), sour (vinegar, lime, and/or tamarind), and salty (fish sauce or sea salt), and a textural contrast between soft noodles, pickled vegetable, crunchy bean sprouts, peanuts, fried tofu, dried shrimps, and any meat or seafood used by the cook, if any. It is cooked on a flat-surfaced pan, and not cooked in a wok. Popular choices for additional ingredients include chicken, pork, shrimp, or tofu, but beef, squid, or cuttlefish can be used as well. Depending on the regional style, cooks might add chile powder (phrik pon) or mild paprika for color. If ordered from a street vendor, the customer will indicate which of the added ingredients they prefer. The customer will then use any of the noodle condiments to adjust the final taste to their individual preference: roasted ground chile, sliced chile in vinegar, fish sauce, fresh chile sauce, minced peanuts, or sugar.

Originally the dish was prepared for take-away dining by street vendors by placing a sheet of newspaper down, lining it with banana leaves, placing the order of noodles on top of the banana leaves, and then wrapping the package up securely before securing it with twine made from banana stalks; a method much more romantic than today's styrofoam. However, this dish is best when eaten as soon as possible after it is removed from the stove.

The History of Pad Thai:
Some culinary historians attribute pad Thai to Vietnamese origins, probably based on Banh Pho Xao Sate or a derivative, a dish of stir-fried rice stick noodles with sate (garlic, peanuts, and chiles), mung bean sprouts, meat of some sort, scallions, and fish sauce, often served with pickled vegetables. The dish was said to be imported to the ancient Thai capital city of Ayuthaya by Viet traders, and was then altered to reflect the Thai flavor profile and assigned a name reflecting its newly acquired Thainess.

Although variations of the dish existed hundreds of years before, pad Thai was formally promoted as a culinary entity and made popular by Prime Minister Luang Pibulsonggram (also transliterated as Phibunsongkhram) during WW II. He wanted to reduce rice consumption during the war (the Thai economy was based largely on rice exports), and there were serious budget constraints at the time. He launched a massive campaign to teach the poor how to manufacture rice noodles, and how to open noodle establishments (shophouse cafes and hawker carts), while using the dish as a tie-in to his campaign for quasi-fascist ultra-nationalism. Phibunsongkhram was the leader of the military revolt which toppled the absolute monarchy in 1932, launched a campaign to introduce western attire, and consolidated the language to promote the Central Thai style and exclude regional dialects. He danced a pragmatic line between appearing to aid the Japanese while maintaining some semblance of Thai independence. After watching Japan destructively blitzkrieg their way across Malaysia, he declared Thailand an ally of Japan. He was forced to resign by the nationalists after Japan’s defeat, but carried out a coup a few years later to regain control, this time under a façade of democracy. After a relatively lengthy and rocky reign, he was forced into exile in Japan after a coup in 1957. Pad Thai lived on.

Companion Dishes:
Although many pad Thai vendors concentrate solely on making this single dish, a large number of pad Thai vendors will also offer companion dishes, since they are mostly made from the same ingredients: Khanom phak gad (white radish [daikon] cakes tossed with chile flakes, bean sprouts, and Chinese leeks with a light soy-based sauce) and Hoi tod (a thin mussel omelet with bean sprouts, served with chile sauce) .

We should warn the reader against restaurants or vendors who cook huge batches of pad Thai and hold them to be dispensed when ordered. The informed diner should deal only with a cook who prepares a single serving of pad Thai, cooked-to-order, which is how Sap’s cooks the dish…one order at a time. A cook who specializes in pad Thai will often use a measured amount of a pre-combined ‘mother' sauce rather than add each seasoning ingredient sequentially in a step-by-step process. This is done to speed up the cooking time and produce the dish quickly and with efficiency, and also guarantee consistency from plate-to-plate. Thai bottlers sell commercial versions of this pre-mixed sauce for cooks who want to make pad Thai at home and don't have the training to do so.

Regional Styles of Pad Thai:
Pad Thai Ayuthaya: The accepted style of Ayuthaya uses a relatively sweet mother sauce made from palm sugar, white sugar, tamarind juice, sea salt, and fish sauce. The components of the dish are: wide rice noodles, mother sauce, crispy garlic, salted and preserved Tien jing cabbage, tiny dried shrimp, Chinese leeks, roasted and ground peanuts, and roasted chile powder. If egg is desired, the dish is pushed to one side of the pan, an egg is added and scrambled, and then combined with the mixture. Since the sauce is so sweet, this version relies on balance of taste by using sour fruits as part of the garnish: slivered starfruit, banana blossom julienne, peanuts, pennywort leaves, Chinese leeks, and chile powder.

Pad Mii Korat: This is a spicy version of pad Thai from Korat, also known as Nakhon Ratchasima, ‘The Gateway to Issan'. It uses shredded cabbage or pak boong (water spinach), chiles, fish sauce, vinegar, sweet dark soy, tamarind, sugar, pickled garlic, pickled ginger, scrambled egg, and round egg noodles called sen mii, garnished with cucumber slices and cilantro leaves. It is usually eaten at lunch, often accompanied by som tam (spicy green papaya salad).

Pad Mii Krathok (from the Chokchai region): A specialty version from west of Korat, using minced garlic, minced onions, minced chilles, minced peanut, coarsely-chopped pork, sugar, fish sauce, and raw fresh noodles, garnished with chives and mung bean sprouts.

Pad Thai Krung Thep : Bangkok-Style Pad Thai: This Central-style version uses garlic, Chantaboon sen lek rice noodles, rice vinegar, fish sauce, diced fried tofu, tiny dried shrimp, salted and preserved Tien jing cabbage, roasted and ground peanuts, roasted chile powder, sugar, mung bean sprouts, Chinese leeks or chives, scrambled egg. Garnishes include: mung bean sprouts, Chinese leeks, banana blossom julienne, and lime wedges. Housewives in the countryside say the name, Pad Thai Krung Thep, with disgust and consider it overly elaborate and think of it as rich people showing off. They don't realize how competitive the pad thai street vendor scene in Bangkok really is, and how demanding the vendor's customers can be.

Woon Sen Pad Thai: This is an alternate style which became popular in Bangkok in the early 1990's, using thin, translucent woon sen noodles made from mung bean starch. This version uses thick tamarind juice in place of vinegar, combined with the standard ingredients. It is a bit spicier, using dried and roasted, ground phrik kii nuu chile powder both as an ingredient and as one of the garnishes.

Pad Thai Mangsawirat: A vegetarian version of the classic Bangkok style, using tofu and beans (black eyed peas, mung beans, soy beans, green beans, long beans, etc.) or other vegetables while omitting the dried shrimp and egg, as well as any added meats or seafood.

Pad Mii Rayong/Chanthaburi: This version is the basis for the pad Thai cooked at Sap’s. Originally it is made with crab: claw and lump crab meat in the expensive version, hacked-apart crab in-the-shell for the home-style version. The sauce is sweeter than the Central styles, using shallot, palm sugar, tamarind, vinegar, fish sauce, and scrambled egg. It uses a red chile powder made from the milder long, red Thai chiles which are de-deeded, dried, and ground; it adds chile flavor fruitiness without the piquant heat.

At Thai restaurants in the States pad Thai is generally cooked with added meat or seafood, changing what is normally an inexpensive vendor dish into a full-blown entrée; this is seldom seen in Thailand, except in middle to upper class restaurants. Ketchup and vinegar are used much more widely here than is tamarind, and except for rare occasions, the dish is cooked only in restaurants; street vendor versions only appear at special occasions in the States, such as temple fairs or food fairs.

With any of these versions Chinese leeks are preferred, but can be substituted with chives or scallions. Salted and preserved Tien jing cabbage can be substituted with preserved turnip (the sweeter version of the pickled vegetable is preferred over the saltier version). The standard condiment used on pad Thai in Thailand is Siracha sauce.

Naam jiim Siracha: Siracha (Sriracha) sauce is a bottled table condiment originally made in Siracha, a coastal town just north of Pattaya (down the coast south of Bangkok). It's a reddish-orange sauce made from pureed and aged-fermented ripe chiles, salt, vinegar, garlic, and sugar, which is used especially with egg and noodle dishes. Thai brands are preferred, since they have the true Thai taste, which balances sweet and sour with the heat (and there are some Thai brands that also offer a mild version if you prefer less heat). Vietnamese brands, such as the common Huy Fong (‘Rooster Brand') are spicier, with more garlic, vinegar, and little sugar. Huy Fong, by the way, is made in Los Angeles, from ripe jalapeños and garlic powder. ‘Sriracha Factory Brand', ‘Grand Mountain', and ‘Golden Mountain' are all good Thai labels of a proper Thai Siracha sauce.

Originally Siracha sauce was made with Thai yellow chiles (prik daeng), which many feel results in a richer, deeper-flavored sauce. ‘Golden Mountain' brand still produces a version made with these yellow chiles (which can range in color from bright yellow to medium orange), although it is hard to find. You'll recognize the lighter color of the sauce inside the bottle, and if you ever find any on the shelf in your local market, you'd be wise to stock-up. Siracha sauce is used especially for omelets (kai jaew), for general-purpose spiciness with noodles, and grilled and deep-fried items, and, only in the East, with lard na.

A scene from a sauce factory near Chonburi, not too far north of Si Racha. These cases hold oyster sauce.

Okay, so I loved the pad Thai at Sap’s, as much as I resent folks ordering it repeatedly and never experimenting with the rest of the menu. I finished up the meal with a bowl of the new pineapple sorbet, which was aromatic, sweet and tart, and the perfect way to end a Thai meal. It tasted like frozen ripe pineapples (sorry, forgot the photo). Good grub, as always.

Mick Vann ©

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