Phat thai, perhaps Thailand’s most famous culinary export, is also most likely its most commonly misinterpreted dish.
Both abroad, and increasingly at home, phat thai is twisted into variants that have little to do with the original creation. Perhaps this is because real phat thai, a handful of good-quality rice noodles stir-fried with a simple sauce and a few mostly seafood-related ingredients, is deceptively simple in concept, but markedly more difficult to make.
Despite the nationalistic-sounding name, phat thai is essentially a foreign dish. Both noodles and the concept of stir-frying were originally introduced to Thailand by the Chinese. Thai cooks combined the two, and after adding a sauce containing indigenous ingredients such as fish sauce and tamarind, the dish was deemed sufficiently original that the word 'Thai' was tacked on (the word phat means simply “to fry”). The name stuck, and this example of early fusion is today without a doubt the most famous Thai dish in the world.
Unlike versions sold abroad, you’ll rarely, if ever, find phat thai in Thailand made with any meat other than shrimp. Variations containing chicken or beef are largely concoctions meant to appeal to Western-style palates. In its most basic form, the dish often only contains a sprinkling of dried shrimp and bits of tofu, the bulk of the protein typically being egg, which is either fried along with the noodles, or alternatively, made into a thin omelet and wrapped around the noodles to form an attractive package. The only veggies you’ll see in an authentic phat thai are a scattering of Chinese chives and mung bean sprouts; phat thai truly is an exercise in carbs.
Another misunderstanding about the dish is how it is eaten. Phat thai is an example of what Thais call ahaan jaan diow, a one-dish meal. A Thai would never order a dish of phat thai to accompany a plate of rice or a bowl of curry. The dish’s condiments also follow some traditional protocol. In traditional Thai cooking, an effort is made to balance all the flavours: sweet, sour, salty, spicy and often, bitter. Because none of the ingredients in phat thai are particularly bitter, the dish is almost always served with a side of hua plee, the astringent flower of the banana tree, as well as a few extra Chinese chives. To add an extra tart note, phat thai is also accompanied by slices of lime. And like all noodle dishes in Thailand, phat thai is served with a vessel containing optional toppings of sugar, fish sauce and ground dried chilies, just in case you find one of the flavours lacking.
To sample authentic phat thai in Bangkok, head to Thip Samai, a nondescript shophouse in an old district of Bangkok that has been making the dish for 40 years. Another solid option is Phat Thai Fai Look (Corner of Thanon Sukhumvit & Soi 38, Tues-Sun 8pm to late), a streetside vendor whose cooking method involves exposing the noodles to flames, providing the dish with a smoky flavour. Also worth investigating is Phat Thai Ari, a popular franchise with locations throughout Bangkok.