Until recently, for me there was always a stigma around pad thai. One of the most well known of all Thai dishes, pad thai is the "safe" dish on a Thai menu—the one that your parents might order if you take them out for Thai, or if you don't like your spice burning hot, or haven't learned yet to have an appreciation (or a craving in my case) for fish sauce. For a long time I thought pad thai was even an American invention, akin to chop suey. But I guess it's not hard to see why I thought that. Pad thai is definitely chock full of wonderful, tasty "safe" things: chewy flat rice noodles, crunchy peanuts and fresh bean sprouts, scrambled egg, green onions, all in a mildly hot, sweet-ish sauce. But often, restaurants truck down that safe road to an extreme. They flood the noodles in an overly sweet sauce, and fill it with other items folks kind of expect in a Thai dish: shrimp, chicken, crinkle cut carrots, peas, string beans, and baby corn.
Maybe pad thai has been Americanized to some degree, but it is an authentic Thai dish. According to David Thompson in Thai Street Food, pad thai came about in Thailand as a result of a nationalist recipe contest in the late 1930s to find a tasty new dish that would encourage Thai people to eat more noodles. The winning dish was named "pat thai" to show Thai pride and to make sure folks knew that it was different from other stir-fried asian noodles.
To add a protein and keep this pad thai dish hearty enough for dinner, I've incorporated chicken. But in keeping with David Thompson's pared down pad thai, I've just about eliminated any other extraneous veggies except for the sprouts. (All the extra vegetables don't really add to the flavor anyway). The focus is on balancing of the strong flavors of tangy tamarind, salty-briny fish sauce (lots of it), and sweet caramelized palm sugar. Some of the sauce goes into the chicken to flavor it before cooking, and the rest gets soaked up into handfuls of delectably chewy rice noodles. The best part about rice stick noodles is that you just have to soak them before stir-frying, which makes them a snap to throw into a stir-fry.
The prep list may look intimidating, but in the end you'll be rewarded with an awesomely flavorful, authentic version of this famous Thai noodle dish.