Pad Thai is a classic dish for either take-out or dine-in at Thai restaurants. Luckily, for home cooks, there’s no big mystery to what makes a good pad Thai—there’s a little bit of prep ahead of time, but it’s not hard to pull off at home. Woo hoo!
This vegetarian version uses a block of extra firm tofu and swaps in salt for the fish sauce.
What is Pad Thai?
Pad Thai is a noodle-based dish that you’ll often find served with some permutation of chopped peanuts, bean sprouts, scallions, and sometimes carrots, cilantro and/or a wedge of lime. It’s often served with tofu, shrimp, or chicken.
The sauce is key with pad Thai. It’s what makes pad Thai what it is, as opposed to some other stir-fry noodle dish. There’s a specific balance of flavors that occurs when you combine sugar, rice vinegar, fish sauce, and tamarind (a sweet-sour fruit that gets added here either as a concentrate or a pulp; see below for more information). Those are the ingredients that go into this pad Thai sauce.
How to Make Pad Thai Vegetarian—and Vegan
In Thailand, it’s not uncommon to see this dish with tofu. However, the dish is not strictly vegetarian until you remove the fish sauce.
According to Chef Peter, with whom I worked on these pad Thai recipes, all you need to replicate the element of fish sauce is salt.
It won’t offer the same depth of flavor that fish sauce will, but the salt will help balance the rest of the flavors and mimic some of the salty taste you get from fish sauce. When I told him I saw some vegetarian recipes for pad Thai online that involved soaking dried mushrooms and making some kind of broth to mimic the umami taste of fish sauce, he simply said, “Please do not do that.” I intuited that it was both an unnecessary step and perhaps a bit offensive to pad Thai to make it that way.
Making this dish vegan is easy—all you need to do is remove the eggs!
A NOTE ABOUT TAMARIND
We’ve focused on tamarind concentrate for this recipe, as it’s more widely available. It gets whisked in with the other sauce ingredients really easily, no prep work needed.
If you buy tamarind pulp instead of concentrate, take it out of the package, put it in a bowl with warm to hot water (enough to cover, about 3 to 4 cups) and let it soak for 30 minutes. Break up the pulp with your hands to separate the large seeds and fibrous parts. Run the remainder of the pulp through a fine mesh sieve and right into a bowl, scraping the underside of the sieve to remove any pulp that may have gotten stuck.
You should have about 1/2 cup of pulp—it will be velvety and look like apple butter. You use all of it, and use it the same way in the sauce as you would the concentrate—it will yield more sauce, and one that is slightly thicker/less watery.
Tips on Cooking with Tofu
Here are a few things to know that will help tofu cook optimally.
- Tofu is packaged in a bit of liquid. Dump the liquid out, put the tofu block on a cutting board, and wrap it with a kitchen towel or a doubled-up layer of paper towels.
- Using your hands, gently press out some of the extra liquid into the towel. This will ensure that the tofu is as dry as possible when you put it in a hot pan, which means it will brown nicely and get a little crispy on the outside. You can leave it wrapped in a towel while you set about prepping the other ingredients.
- Once the tofu feels like it’s released as much water as it’s going to—it will still be damp—slice it vertically into strips about 1/2-inch to an inch wide—and then cut those strips into smaller chunks of about the same size so they cook evenly. There’s no right or wrong here—just try to be as symmetrical as you can.
- Blot the tofu again after cutting, if needed, with paper towels or another kitchen towel.
What kind of noodles work best for pad Thai?
Rice noodles about the width of fettuccine are typically what you’ll find in pad Thai. You can find rice noodles in the international aisle in the grocery store or Asian grocers in nondescript plastic bags that may or may not contain cooking instructions in a language you may or may not understand. Truth! (Here are the noodles that I prefer for pad Thai.)
There’s one thing that makes such a difference with pad Thai: the process of soaking the noodles ahead of time in cold water. You can do this the night before or in the morning on the day you’re going to cook pad Thai.
It will be so much easier to cook the noodles because they’ve softened a little bit. They will also be boiled very quickly, right before they are incorporated into the other ingredients in the hot pan.
Break Up the Cooking for Best Results
This recipe works best if you break it into two batches—otherwise, there’s just too much food in the pan, and it makes it hard to cook everything evenly. Besides, in restaurants (and in food carts in Thailand), pad Thai is typically prepared to order, one serving at a time. There’s a lot of wisdom to that.
ADDING MORE VEGETABLES
Although I love adding more vegetables when I can to a dish, a traditional vegetarian pad Thai doesn’t typically load you up on vegetables. However, Chef Peter says you can add your favorites, if you like.
Toss in some snow peas, some shredded cabbage, or whatever else you like—those will be good to go in toward the end of cooking, because they’ll soften quickly. Anything else that’s thicker or harder, such as carrots, broccoli, asparagus, or green beans, you’ll need to add those earlier in the process—after the tofu, but before the eggs. Just push the veggies to the side of the pan when you add the eggs. It’ll fit.
PAD THAI MAKES GREAT LEFTOVERS!
In the process of developing pad Thai recipes, I learned that Pad Thai keeps well for four to five days and reheats beautifully in the microwave. (Sometimes I like to add a little bit of extra sauce.)
I was initially skeptical of using the microwave for noodles, but this direction came straight from the Thai chef from whom I adapted this recipe. As you might imagine, pad Thai does not really freeze well. However, if you and yours like this recipe, you won’t have a surplus!
Want More Thai Recipes?
Vegetarian Pad Thai with Tofu Recipe
For the pad Thai:
- 1 (14-ounce) package flat, wide rice noodles
- 2 to 3 teaspoons salt
- 3/4 cup rice vinegar
- 1 to 2 teaspoons tamarind paste or concentrate
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- Pinch of paprika (or cayenne powder)
- 10 to 12 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil, divided
- 1 pound tofu, extra firm, drained and cubed
- 4 large eggs
- 1/3 cup roasted, unsalted peanuts, chopped roughly
- 1 cup bean sprouts
For garnish (optional):
- 1 lime, cut into quarters
- 2 tablespoons roasted, unsalted peanuts, chopped roughly
- Chopped cilantro, for garnish
- Red pepper flakes, for garnish
1 Soak the rice noodles: In a large container, preferably one with a lid, soak the noodles in cold water, enough to cover so that no noodle is poking out. Soak for at least 2 hours or up to 24 hours. It can be refrigerated, or not—it doesn’t matter.
2 Make the sauce: In a shallow bowl, whisk together 2 teaspoons of salt, vinegar, tamarind concentrate, and sugar until smooth. Taste. Adjust the sauce as needed; you may need to add more salt depending on the other ingredients. Add a pinch of paprika or cayenne powder for color.
You’ll only need about 1/2 cup of sauce for this recipe (1/4 cup per batch). Any extra sauce can be stored in the fridge for up to 3 months or used on leftovers.
3 Bring a large pot of water to boil.
4 Divide all of your ingredients into two batches. Arrange them near your stove. You’ll prepare each batch completely, one after the next.
WORKING ONE BATCH AT A TIME:
5 Cook the tofu: Heat a wok or other large pan with high sides over high heat, which you will maintain throughout cooking the pad Thai. Add 2 tablespoons of oil. When it starts to shimmer a bit, it’s ready.
Add the tofu for your first batch to the pan and let it get some color on it, about 2 to 3 minutes. Toss it frequently once you’ve got some browning on one side. You won’t get browning on all sides. Cook for another 2 to 3 minutes, and then remove the tofu to a plate. Set aside.
6 Cook the eggs: Add 2 to 3 tablespoons of oil to the pan. When the oil starts to shimmer a bit, it’s ready.
Crack the eggs for this batch into the pan and, using the tip of a wooden spoon, gently loosen the yolk. There should be enough oil in the pan so it looks as though the egg is floating, or suspended, in the oil. This gives you more surface area to cook the egg without it burning.
Gently shake and flip the egg around in the pan. Break it up a bit with the spoon, but don’t scramble it by any means. This should take about a minute.
Push the eggs off to the side of the pan to make room for the tofu. Add the tofu back to the pan.
7 Soften the noodles: Take several handfuls of your noodles (about half the total amount) out of the water they’re soaking in, and transfer to a fine mesh sieve. Using the sieve saves you from having to cook and then strain the noodles—and makes the process move more quickly.
Hold the sieve over the pot of hot water and gently dip the noodles up and down, in and out of the water, to soften them but not cook them per se. They don’t need to be completely cooked at this point, because they will continue to cook in the wok.
Shake out the excess hot water and taste to make sure the noodles have softened but still have a little give.
8 Add the noodles to the pan: Transfer the noodles to the hot pan. Toss them gently in the pan and stir them briefly to keep them from sticking together. When the noodles look shiny, after about a minute or so, it’s time for the sauce.
9 Add the sauce: Add about 1/4 cup of the sauce to the pan and gently toss and flip the noodles in the pan. Stir them quickly to integrate the sauce; you’ll know it’s ready when you can’t see any more sauce in the pan because the noodles have absorbed it.
If it seems like it needs more, add a little more, and cook until it’s absorbed. Taste. (Pad Thai is very much an intuitive, taste-as-you-go kind of dish.) This shouldn’t take more than a minute or two.
10 Add the peanuts and bean sprouts: Add the peanuts and the sprouts, and toss all ingredients together quickly. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes all together until everything is heated through. The noodles will begin to soften and look more translucent.
11 Taste and serve: Turn the heat off the pan and taste to make sure there is enough sauce to flavor the dish. Serve immediately in individual bowls with wedges of lime, along with additional peanuts, chopped cilantro, and chili flakes, if desired.
12 Repeat steps 5 through 11 for making the second batch of pad Thai.
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