Why We Don’t Go Out For Thai

Consider, for a moment, the plight of the peanut-allergic American. If you don’t have to worry about dying from accidental contact with this particular legume, you probably don’t even realize how much it’s used in everyday foods. Cereals, snacks, candies, and convenience foods often contain things like peanut flour or peanut oil when you’d least expect it. Even those which do not intentionally include peanut products in their ingredient lists will frequently carry that potentially life-saving warning, “Manufactured in a facility which also process peanuts.” While this means that your granola bar probably does not contain, nor has it come in contact with, a peanut or its byproducts, it also means that it MIGHT have, and you’d just better not take the chance.

Then there’s fried foods, which have at least a 50/50 chance of having been cooked in peanut oil, and sometimes its almost impossible to tell. I often wonder how many unaware folks with peanut allergies get sick every year from innocent trips to Chick-Fil-A. (Because yes, they fry just about everything in peanut oil, and the warning signs in their restaurants are notoriously small and easy-to-miss. I had a close call there myself a few years back.)

If you don’t have to think about it, you probably don’t realize just how dangerous the world can be for someone with a severe peanut allergy, and how limited the options become when you really take every step possible to keep yourself. And no matter how hard you try to protect yourself, there is still always the slight possibility that, under the wrong circumstances, you just might get hit with an allergy attack seemingly out of nowhere due to a chance encounter of your purse with a peanut shell on the ground.

And possibly worse than all that is the fact that it is damn near impossible to go out for Thai food.

As you may have determined, I am one of those unlucky 1.5 million Americans whose bodies cannot process the proteins in that beloved of all “nuts”, the peanut. I’ve learned as I’ve grown up how to best avoid accidental ingestion of the evil little beans, and know to be very careful when eating out or trying new foods. However, in my younger days I was sometimes a bit more reckless than I should’ve been, and it was during those years that I first discovered Thai food.

I suppose I was lucky. There were a lot of Thai restaurants in New Haven County in CT, where I grew up, and I went to at least three different places where I was able to enjoy untainted Thai food, probably due to some extreme care and consideration by the restaurants’ chefs and servers. Through these visits I learned to love Thai cuisine, its unique, fresh, and vibrant flavors, colors, and textures, and I became a regular customer to the restaurant closest to home, craving their food constantly between visits.

And then I moved to NY, where there must be a thousand Thai restaurants to try. And it was then that I had my first bad experience in a Thai restaurant, one which must not have taken such impeccable care in keeping their kitchen clean and their peanut products quarantined, because despite having ordered a dish that I knew full well should contain no peanuts whatsoever, I had a reaction and was sick for days.

Since then I have not set foot in another Thai restaurant, other than the one back home that I know is safe.

Just try to imagine not being able to go out for your favorite kind of food because, well, it just might kill you. I probably don’t need to spell it out, but I will: IT SUCKS.

But, not being one to take my eating limitations lying down, I resolved that I simply had to be able to make my own Thai food at home, where I knew it would be 100% safe for me to eat. And after introducing J to my beloved “safe haven” Thai restaurant in CT and turning him on to the stuff, he was more than willing to take on the challenge with me.

Since then we have made several soups, stir fries, and noodle/rice dishes from various cookbooks and online recipe sources, some more successful than others but all of them better than no Thai food at all. We will continue to experiment until we have a retinue of reliable, delicious, and authentic (as close as possible, anyway, working within the no-peanuts limitation) recipes that we can turn to whenever we feel that particular, special craving that no other food can satisfy. But for now, the one recipe we’ve come back to time and time again has been this, my favorite Thai noodle dish and one of my favorite things to eat, ever: Pad See Ew.

A relatively simple dish of wide rice noodles stir-fried with Chinese broccoli or gai lan, egg, and thin strips of chicken or pork with a sticky, sweet soy sauce, pad see ew is a popular lunchtime street food in Thailand. It is hearty and incredibly flavorful, and like so much of the Thai cuisine I’ve tasted, incredibly well balanced. Sweet, savory, peppery, and tangy flavors meld together into a truly perfect sauce, binding the tender chicken, soft eggs, crunchy broccoli and chewy rice noodles into what I can only describe as the ultimate noodle dish. Seriously, I could eat this stuff every day for a week and not get bored with it. It is amazing to me that such a simple dish with such basic ingredients can taste this good.

The recipe I follow for this dish is slightly non-traditional, but it achieves the same flavor that I fell in love with back in CT, and for that I don’t mind breaking the rules a bit. I always use chicken and have never had it with pork, even though I’m pretty sure that pork is the standard protein in Thialand. I also use regular-old broccoli florets instead of Chinese broccoli or gai lan, because frankly I have access to neither. It doesn’t matter. Because really, the star of this dish is the noodles; wide ribbons of chewy, starchy goodness that soak up all that delicious sauce and become almost unbearably addictive. I bet you won’t be able to stop at one plate.

Pad See Ew
Adapted from a bunch of recipes that I can’t really remember all mashed up together; technique adapted from Pim’s Pad See Ew for Beginners.

If you can’t find fish sauce, rice wine vinegar, or dark sweet soy in stores near you, try ordering them online from any of a number of Thai ingredient suppliers. That’s what we did, and unless you cook Thai every day, they’ll probably last you a good long time.

12oz flat, wide dry rice noodles
1 large boneless skinless chicken breast, sliced thinly (you could substitute pork or even tofu here if you wanted)
2 cups broccoli florets (one large crown should do fine)
1 egg
6 cloves of garlic, smashed and minced

2 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp rice wine vinegar
1 tsp toasted sesame oil

1 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp soy sauce
3 tsp dark sweet soy sauce
2 tsp rice wine vinegar
1-2 tbsp white sugar
1/2-1 tsp black pepper

Vegetable oil for cooking (Choose something with a high smoke point like safflower or grapeseed oil or, if you aren’t allergic like me, peanut oil. I won’t even bother giving a measurement because it depends on too much – the seasoning of your wok, the type of noodles you use, how hot your stove gets, etc. – just be aware that you will probably use a lot.)

30-60 minutes before you intend to start cooking, mix together the ingredients for the marinade and pour over the slices of chicken in a large bowl. Toss around to coat each piece with the marinade, then cover with plastic wrap and let stand until you are ready to cook.

Place the rice noodles in a dish and cover with hot water (I bring my tea kettle up to just shy of the boiling point) and let stand long enough for the noodles to become pliable. You’ll want to move them around every so often with a fork or tongs to keep them from sticking together and forming one giant noodle clump. 5-10 minutes will probably do it, depending on how hot the water is. Just don’t let them get soft or mushy, or you’ll be setting yourself up for failure later. They need to be able to finish cooking in the wok. Once the noodles are pliable, drain them in a colander and rinse well with cold water, then let stand to drain completely.

Make sure the rest of your ingredients are prepped and ready to go – cut up your broccoli florets and put them in a bowl. Do the same with the garlic. Scramble the egg in another bowl, adding a touch of soy sauce if you like. Finally, make the sauce, whisking all of the ingredients together to help the sugar dissolve. I used the full 2tbsp the last time I made it and felt it was a little too sweet for my tastes, so next time I’ll cut it back to maybe a heavy tbsp, but season it according to your tastes. Same goes for the pepper – I like a lot, but use as much as you like.

You should now have a bowl of chicken in its marinade, a colander full of flexible but not-exactly cooked rice noodles, a bowl of broccoli, a bowl of garlic, a bowl of egg, and a bowl of sauce. Now get out your vegetable oil and a big wooden spoon or spatula, and make sure everything is within easy reach of the stove; its time to start cooking, and it’s going to move quickly.

Place a large wok over high heat and preheat for at least 5 minutes to ensure the whole pan is heated evenly. Add a tablespoon or two of oil to the pan, enough that you can swirl the pan around and coat as much of the sides as possible. Let that heat up for just a few seconds, then dump in your marinated chicken and garlic. Keep the chicken and garlic moving around the pan by swirling the pan gently and tossing/stirring the meat with your wooden spoon or spatula, letting it cook on all sides without burning. You’ll probably get some smoke and some spatter, so just be careful when you move the pan. Once the chicken is cooked and browned in places, remove it and the garlic back to its bowl. Wipe out the pan with a couple of paper towels and replace on the heat.

Now, the broccoli. Add some more oil to the wok, then dump in your broccoli and cook the same way that you did the chicken, though you probably won’t need to move it around as much because it wont be as likely to stick as the chicken was. Cook until the broccoli is bright green and slightly softened but still crisp in the stems, and the florets have gotten brown and crispy in spots. Remove from the wok back to its bowl, and replace the wok on the stove. No need to wipe it out this time.

Drizzle some oil over the noodles in their colander and toss around gently so that all of the noodles are individually coated with oil, then add a bit more oil to the wok. This is where things can get tricky, as rice noodles tend to stick like crazy and will break apart and completely lose their structural integrity if they do, so although it goes against my usual healthy sensibilities, use as much oil as you need to keep that from happening.

One the noodles are coated and the oil in the pan is hot again, dump in the noodles and get them moving in the pan immediately. The longer they stay stationary, the more likely they are to stick. Stir fry them until they start to show crisp, brown spots. Now, this is the only part that I still have trouble with – move the noodles up the sides of the pan where it will be cooler, creating a well at the very bottom of the pan, and pour in the scrambled egg. Resist the urger to start shoving it around in the pan the way you have every other ingredient – the noodles at this point should be lubed up enough that they won’t stick, and the egg needs to cook without being fooled with for awhile so that it can actually set up. You want to be able to break it into pieces once its cooked, not turn it into a coating for the noodles.

Give it just a minute or two until it looks mostly opaque, then get in there and stir to break it up a bit and toss it with the noodles. Now dump the chicken, garlic, and broccoli back into the pan, toss it all together, and finally pour in all the sauce. Do your pan-shaking/hot-food-tossing bit until everything in the pan is coated in sauce, the noodles have absorbed most of the liquid, and the heat has thickened up anything that’s left, just a minute or two. You should get a bit more caramelization and browning during this step. Remove from the heat and serve immediately, with an extra shake of black pepper and a drop or two of soy sauce as a final flavor boost.

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1 Response to Why We Don’t Go Out For Thai

  1. jesse says:

    Wow, this recipe is wonderful. I’m living with someone who is allergic to nuts, and before I met her I hadn’t realized how much nuts have been integrated into our diets… this post is so informative, thank you!

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