BANGKOK (THE NATION) - For one of the best-known Thai dishes in the world, phad thai had a surprisingly humble start in life. Its story can be traced back to World War II when the country was suffering shortages of basic foodstuffs and the prime minister at that time, Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram, known familiarly as Chomphon Por, encouraged Thais to eat noodles due to the high cost of rice production. That instruction gave birth to Thipsamai Padthai Pratoopee, an eatery credited with the original phad thai recipe.
Located at the capital's Pratoopee intersection, close to Wat Saket and the Giant Swing (Sao Ching Cha), Thipsamai Padthai started life as a nameless street stall and prepared food for its customers every night on a small charcoal stove. Plaek ate there and declared the noodles the best he had ever tasted and in 1966, Thipsamai Padthai Pratoopee was formally created.
This year the restaurant was awarded a Bib Gourmand (inspectors' favourite for good value street food) by Michelin Guide.
The dish that won this accolade from the food bible is simply called "Superb". Priced at Bt90 (S$3.80), it combines stir-fried, long and tender chan noodles with shrimp oil, herbs and fresh deep-sea prawns, all wrapped in egg.
Another favourite, phad thai song krueng (Bt300) combines various quality ingredients, including shrimp oil, fresh extra-large deep-sea prawns, and sliced squid. Customers can choose between chan noodles and glass noodles and the dish is garnished with crabmeat and sliced raw mango instead of lime juice.
Traditional phad thai, known here as "Basic" and costing Bt60 for a generous portion, gives off the sweet scent of palm sugar, which combines well with tofu, radish pickles, dried shrimp, and egg. The flavour is slightly sweet and the tastiest part is the thin egg wrap drizzled with shrimp oil sauce.
The eatery is today in the hands of Dr Thanyanan Reungwetwattana MD and her husband, Dr Sikarachat Baisamut, the son of the founders. "Sikarachat's mother, Samai, taught us everything about the restaurant from cleaning to serving to cooking and my husband helped at the stall as a youngster. Today our challenge is to maintain the quality and taste of this famous dish," she says.
And in this, the couple have been successful with Thipsamai's phad thai so popular that a long queue forms well before the restaurant opens at 5pm. Bookings are not accepted but patrons are content to wait, breathing in the sweet fragrance of the wok-fried noodles as they are cooked.
"Kuay taew phad or fried noodles is a favourite dish everywhere. The Chinese have many famed noodle dishes so our Thai-style fried noodles - phad thai - are distinguished from the rest not only by the cooking techniques but also the main ingredients. We use sen chan, long thin rice noodles which are a little sticky yet tender, shrimp oil, prawns and fish sauce rather than black sweet soy sauce and pork, which are more Chinese style," she explains. The dish is still cooked on a charcoal stove, with the charcoal coming from local producers in Samut Songkhram.
"It is very important to find the right type of charcoal that has a consistently high temperature yet produces less smoke. We use only good-quality mangrove charcoal on our three stoves," Thanyanan says. The noodles are best washed down with either fresh orange juice, the price of which is determined by the market, or fresh coconut water.
The restaurant itself has the ambience of a traditional Thai house with plenty of old cooking utensils on display. The cooking is done in front of the customers and industrial-sized fans keep the air circulating. Thanyanan credits the charm of Thai culture for drawing tourists to the country. "Food, culture, beautiful landscapes, and easy-going hospitality are our assets and we must put every effort into preserving these. Although as a medical doctor, I would like to see better hygiene in the preparation of street food, we should always keep our cuisine tasty and authentic."
OODLES OF NOODLES
The restaurant is open daily from 5pm to 2am. Though the queues are long, it rarely takes more than 15 minutes to fill an order.
There are three branches:
313-315 Mahachai Road, Samranrat, Pranakorn, Bangkok, call (02) 226 6666
Buddha Mondhol Sai 4, 99/11 Moo 6 Hwy 3310, Salaya, Nakhon Pathom, call (086) 429 9999
King Power Complex, Phaya Thai Road, Ratchathewi, Bangkok.
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