Pad Thai, a noodle fueled by nationalism
The secret history of pad thai?
Pad Thai is the most misunderstood noodle. Its best incarnations are difficult to find outside of Thailand, even as the basic ingredients are now readily available abroad. I think back to the Pad Thais of my childhood, freshly made at a Bangkok street stall and packaged to go in banana leaves and a newspaper outer layer. A good Pad Thai slowly reveals itself: sweetness with bursts of salty and tart, depending on what is being bitten—preserved radishes, dried prawns, and bits of peanut or omelet. Here in the U.S., Pad Thai usually arrives a pile of noodles plated in a puddle of oil. Many taste as sweet as a lollipop and come stained red by ketchup.
Yet it’s not entirely fair to complain about the authenticity of Pad Thai. It’s the noodle that’s the most Thai, and at the same time, the least. Before the 1940s, Pad Thai didn’t exist as a common dish. Its birth and popularity came out of the nationalist campaign of Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsongkram, one of the revolutionary figures who in 1932 pushed Thailand out of an absolute monarchy and into a Game of Thrones-style democracy, where coups and counter-coups have become the norm.
In between surviving multiple point-blank-range assassination attempts and a failed kidnapping in which he emerged alive from the burning wreckage of a battleship his own air force had just bombed, Pibulsongkram decided that Thailand needed noodles that would advance the country’s industry and economy. After all, he had already changed the name of country from Siam to Thailand as part of a series of mandates meant to shroud its people under a modernized Thai identity. Forks and spoons would be used instead of hands. More European-style clothing must be worn. Thai products should be preferred above all others. Pibulsongkram wanted to create a new Thai diet while making more rice products available for export. According to his son’s suppositions in the 2009 Gastronomica article “Finding Pad Thai,” the codified modern variant of Pad Thai may have originated in Pibulsongkram’s household, perhaps the devising of the family’s cook. Its recipe was disseminated throughout the country, and push carts were sent into the streets to make this newfangled on-the-go meal available to the masses. To eat Pad Thai would be a patriotic act. Thus was born the Volksnoodle for an emerging Thai nation-state.
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