Pad Thai History: Origins of the Most Famous Thai Dish

Authentic Pad Thai, Thailand’s Treasured Dish

While Pad Thai history is a controversial topic, we wanted to focus on the bright side of things for this article. Dating back to the late 1930’s, Pad Thai has had decades to grow in popularity. It’s become the iconic dish of Thailand. Sometimes you might hear that it’s only popular among tourists, but that’s completely false. Local Thais love it just as much as those popping in for a visit!

What is Pad Thai, anyway?

Savor Pad Thai history with a plate when you're in the Land of Smiles.

Before hopping into the heavily-debated Pad Thai history, I think it’s important for you to truly understand the Thai dish. Pad Thai is a balancing act between a handful of very different flavors and textures. While this is a common theme in Thai cooking, Pad Thai is the best example of it. The rice noodles and meat or tofu serve as a savory base to the plate. You’ve got the (mild) spiciness of the chili flakes, the sour from the lime wedges and the sweetness of the sugar. The chopped peanut garnish adds a crunchy texture to each bite. Overall, it’s a mild dish with room for you to spice it up to your preference. Delicious.

Pad Thai’s Chinese-Influenced Roots

1938: Thailand’s Minister of Defense, Phibun sought to unite the Thai people. With food. Worried about potential colonization attempts in the country that other Asian countries fell victim to, Phibun introduced Pad Thai to the world. As a result of the era, records on the full Pad Thai history is a bit shaky. Some say Phibun created a national contest to create a national dish. Phibun’s son has gone on record saying it was an old family recipe. Regardless of how it happened, we’re glad it came to light.

Phibun had great visions for creating a uniquely Thai dish that could unify the country’s people. Although Pad Thai has Chinese influence, its localized ingredients gave it independence. The flavors of chilies, palm sugar and tamarind made it unique, just as planned. Some may compare Pad Thai to General Tso’s chicken, a foreign interpretation of a local cuisine. However, it’s an inaccurate comparison since Pad Thai was born in the Land of Smiles. Many Thai dishes are heavily influenced by Chinese heritage, but it’s the local ingredients of Thailand that create its unique identity.

There’s quite a bit more to this story rooted in military and political controversy. We want to keep this blog fairly light and upbeat, but if you want to learn more, check out this article by Gastronomica.

How Pad Thai (and Thai food as a whole) Grew Global Fame

Some Asian cuisines are world-renowned, while others sit on the sidelines. Thailand falls into the first category, with people all around the world enjoying its intricacies in their home countries. This was a completely intentional move by the Tourism Authority of Thailand. The promotion of Thai cuisine has been one of the board’s major projects.

Part of this initiative was the “Kitchen of the World” campaign in 2003, which gave restaurateurs loans and training to establish Thai cuisine overseas. The program holds to this day, with an annual budget of over 500 million baht (16 million USD). The end result is not just Pad Thai, but all types of Thai food readily available all across the world. Pretty badass, to say the least.

Click here to read about Khao Soi, the famous curry of Northern Thailand!

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