Pad Kee Mao is a popular stir-fried rice noodle dish served throughout Thailand and the direct translation is “drunkard’s noodles”. When you order this dish in Thailand, rest assured that it will be very spicy, loaded with chiles and basil, and the preferred way to eat it is accompanied by a large icy beer (although over there, the beer might be poured over ice). The dish is just as popular with the Thai whiskey drinkers, whether it’s Mekhong or Sang Som whiskey, Sang Thip rum, lao khao (“white liquor”), lao theuan (“jungle liquor”), or yaa dong (rice-based herbal liquor). I suppose you could also include the Thai fruit wine drinkers, and perhaps the legitimate Thai varietal grape wine drinkers as well (Thailand has a burgeoning wine industry, using varietal grapes grown on the temperate mountain slopes).
Pad Kee Mao is a versatile dish. It can be made with rice noodles, wheat spaghetti, without noodles and served over rice, or as fried rice. The main protein can be beef, pork, chicken, tofu, or seafood, or with mixed meats, or only vegetables; you name it. Kee mao is a cooking style, not a particular dish, although most Westerners think of the classic stir-fried rice noodle dish when they think of the term kee mao. In Thai, ‘pad’ means to stir-fry, and ‘kee mao’ means someone who likes to drink too much. ‘Kee’ literally means ‘shit’, and putting ‘kee’ in front of any verb indicates it’s a bad habit. ‘Mao’ means drunk. So, a ‘kee mao’ (“shit drunk”) is someone who has a bad habit of drinking way too much.
There are many theories on how the dish or the cooking style got its name. Drinkers in Thailand prefer very spicy dishes, especially carbo-rich dishes, when they’re getting their drunk on, and pad kee mao is considered an excellent hangover treatment; both conceivable theories.
Others, especially Westerners, feel the dish is so hot that the eater has to be drunk to be able to stand it, or one becomes drunk trying to drown out the heat with alcohol, or it’s so hot that the spiciness makes one feel drunk. Considering the wide assortment of ingredients that can be in the dish, the cook must have been drunk to have combined them in the first place, or the original cook was drunk when he first cooked it, so he didn’t realize how hot the dish was until later. Yet another theory is that the “wobbly” nature of the noodles themselves gave the dish its name. The dish is widely available at street food stalls very late at night and very early in the morning, when the unofficial or hidden bars are emptying out, hence, the preferred dish of drunkards. (In the cities there are curfews on how late bars can serve, but it’s common for underground or late-night bars to do business way past curfew by offering bribes to local officials to look the other way. There is a subculture of illegal after-hours clubs, often located in second floor walkups, which serve all night long, with many of them not even opening up for business until 3 or 4 am).
Regardless of the source of the name, the cooking style and dish originated in an earlier version in China, and was brought through Southern China by traders and immigrants into both Laos and Thailand, spreading first through the Chinese immigrant communities, and then adopted into the Thai community at-large.
It is a common dish across Thailand, and is most frequently found being sold by street or market vendors, or in shophouse cafés with limited menus. A shophouse is a typical Thai row building, 2 or 3-story, with a business on the ground floor and living quarters above. If that business is a small café, it will usually have open-air seating, covered by the building above, with a street stall-like kitchen set up in one corner, or on the edge of the sidewalk. It can also be found on the menu of regular restaurants, and if a bar has a kitchen, it will be offered to the bar’s patrons.
The dish itself involves the aforementioned choice of protein and blanched (pre-cooked al dente) rice stick noodles, especially wide (sen yai) noodles. Some prefer rice vermicelli, feeling it gets coated better with the sauce, and spaghetti noodles aren’t uncommon, especially in the cities where Italian restaurants are quite popular. Whichever noodle is used, it’s best if it gets slightly charred in the cooking process, to get that smoky “dragon’s kiss” from the wok. It can also be prepared as fried rice, or served over rice as a sauce. The dish has lots of chopped garlic cloves, especially Thai garlic, which is smaller but more pungent than American garlic. The heat comes from lots of chopped fresh Thai chiles, especially orange Thai chiles (phrik daeng), usually combined with some phrik pat (roasted chile paste), or phrik pon (dried ground bird chile); it will be very spicy, unless the vendor tones it down because you look like you can’t handle the heat. Depending on the cook, it might also have fresh green peppercorns (phrik thai onn). There is an assortment of vegetables that can be added at this point, depending on the choice of the cook: mushrooms, Chinese cabbage, etc. Traditionally the dish is not terribly vegetable-centric.
The sauce is usually a mother sauce made-up in advance, of fish sauce, black soy sauce, oyster sauce, and white sugar. It’s not uncommon to include Golden Mountain Sauce, which has been made in Thailand for over 50 years. It has a taste similar to Maggi Seasoning Sauce, but is more authentically “Thai” in overall flavor profile. At the last minute holy basil is added so that it gets wilted and infuses the dish; many prefer holy basil since it amplifies the spiciness of the dish (which, in the case of this dish, is a good thing). Thai basil can be used instead of holy basil; if so, it gets tossed in as a garnish.
Sugar, phrik pat, and naam som phrik
On the table, is the vendor or shophouse café’s khreuang puang : literally ‘circle of spices'. It's a reference to the standard condiments on the Thai table, especially where noodles are served: naam plaa (fish sauce), phrik pon (chile powder), phrik dong or naam som phrik (chile slices in vinegar), and white sugar. Vinegar isn’t normally added to a wok during the cooking process, as it could affect the cooked-on non-stick “seasoning” of the metal; generally, vinegar is added by the diner at the table. If the vendor specializes in pad kee mao, the chiles in vinegar would likely be Thai orange chiles, a sweet-sour, fruity chile that still packs a wallop, but not the stinging heat of Thai or bird chiles (prik kee nu). For the most part, the chiles added to the vinegar as a table condiment are milder Thai chiles like phrik chii faa (‘sky pointing’ chiles) or phrik yuak (‘banana stalk’ chiles). You’d also find some chile paste, or phrik phat: fresh ripe Thai chiles which are sun or oven-dried, roasted and ground, and then sautéed in a little bit of oil to produce a dry, almost paste-like consistency. It's used as a table condiment. The flavor is very spicy and smoky, and the taste of this condiment goes with literally any dish. The most common adjustments that a pad kee mao diner would add are a sprinkle of sugar, a little vinegar, and some additional heat, either from chile paste or chile powder (or both).
The next time you have a hankering for a plate of Thai noodles, especially if you have a little alcohol buzz going on, defer to the drunkard’s choice: pad kee mao. It’s rich, aromatic, smoky, and oh-so very spicy; the perfect sort of dish to keep the hangover gods at bay.
Mick Vann, Wonk in Progress ©