Pad Thai: The history and myth behind Thailand’s most famous dish
By Nayara Batschke
Bangkok, April 13 (EFE).- At the most renowned restaurants or in hidden corners of Bangkok’s alleyways, pad Thai became Thailand’s letter of introduction to the world.
But despite its well-known fame, the iconic fried noodle dish’s concept is recent and confused with the country’s own history.
With its mixture of ingredients and textures, as well as the balance between sweetness, acidity, saltiness and spice, pad Thai conquered the hearts of foodies inside and outside the nation.
What few know is that it is a contemporary dish that, in a matter of decades, would officially appear in the Oxford dictionary, would win over a legion of enthusiasts around the globe and would become a kind of “comfort food” for Thais.
“I think that now we can say pad Thai is one traditional dish of thai people and I think many people like it because it is a complex dish in taste but very easy to eat,” said Nui, born and raised in Bangkok.
The exact origin of Thailand’s most famous dish is uncertain, but legend says it was intentionally created in the first half of the 20th century by then-president Phibun Songkhram, framed in a series of reforms with the aim of promoting and strengthening the image of the country internationally.
Another version assures the delicacy is the product of a gastronomic contest organized by the government to create the authentic “Thai national dish.”
However, there is no “historical evidence” to support these legends and the “story that Phibun is the inventor of pad Thai is, in reality, a myth,” said anthropologist Nattha Chuenwattana, an expert in food studies, gastronomy and culture, in an interview with EFE.
“Phibun made an effort to support people to make and consume noodles because he believed that it’s something very cheap, nutritious and [would] help people be healthy,” she said.
This is because the ruler, who was in command of the country between 1938-1944 and 1948-1957, was responsible for a series of political, economic and customs reforms with the aim of “modernizing” Thailand and creating a national identity.
These reforms included a new constitution and even the name change of the country itself, from Siam to Thailand.
On the social front, Phibun encouraged an abrupt transformation in the Thai diet to reduce dependence on rice and promote “healthier citizens” that would lead to a “stronger country,” Nattha said.
In addition, the times of hardship that plagued Thailand in the early 1940s, plunged into a perfect storm that combined the impacts of World War II, one of the worst floods ever recorded and the consequent shortage of crops, including rice.
“It is true that he supported people to make kuay tieow” noodles and “we cannot ignore that now kuay tieow is a very famous and popular dish and in thailand it has become a comfort food,” said the expert.
With the passage of time, the rest became history and the myth came true.
“So the myth was created, and now people and even Google believe that Marshal Phibun invented it (…) We do not know where this came from, but it’s already too late because people already believe that and tell it again and again,” she added.
Although its origin remains unknown, what is certain is that pad Thai has risen as Thailand’s showcase for the world with its peculiar mixture of tamarind sauce, tofu, lemon, dried prawns, eggs and sugar, accompanied by a crunchy helping of peanuts and bean sprouts.
“The mix is very fun, innovative and super tasty. I often come to Thailand, and every time, I have at least one pad Thai a day,” South Korean Ye Chan Kang told EFE.
At a considerably slower pace, the fried noodle dish has also found a place in the hearts of the Thai people, despite initial resistance – especially among the older generations – to considering it a national symbol of the country.