Sweet dried radish
Fresh squeezed lime juice
That's the sauce, the base, the Thing That Makes Pad Thai What It Is.
You cannot make a Pad Thai sauce properly without these. You can make it wonderfully with them. And I think they also contain the magic properties that sooth my babygirl's tummy.
The thing is, there are a gazillion Pad Thai recipes, maybe one for every Pad Thai cook, so its impossible to know which one to use and you could spend the rest of your life playing around with them. Which wouldn't be that bad. But I have a feeling that a lot of people stay away from making it at all because the plethora of recipes and confusion of ingredients is just overwhelming.
Those ingredients seem to vary wildly, and of course every cook thinks theirs is the best.
Some call for galagal. Some call for lemon grass. Some call for a lot of garlic, some none. Or ginger, or not. Or teensy dried shrimp, or not.
But I've figured out something really important:
There are four basic ingredients in Pad Thai sauce that are absolutely necessary. Everything other ingredient the gazillions recipes call for in the sauce is optional.
I'm going to tell you what those four ingredients are, and once you have that information you will be able to make a good Pad Thai from pretty much any authoritative Thai cooking source. After I tell you the magic ingredients, I'll give you a couple of other basics, and you're off.
Should you doubt me, please know that I have now pleased the most difficult of Pad Thai critics, my teenage daughter. And she knows her Pad Thai. It soothes her tummy, so we've eaten a lot of it over the last year.
Palm sugar Fish sauce Sweet dried radish Fresh squeezed lime juice
That's your sauce. Those are the totally wonderful magic flavors that make the dish the mysteriously wicked taste fest that it is. And they CANNOT be substituted. Period. You must find the authentic versions. Mail order them if you have to, but you cannot use soy sauce in place of fish sauce, nor any other sugar in place of the palm. Don't leave out the sweet dried radish, and don't even consider lemon for lime.
Look at a recipe for ratios. They are just about in agreement on that.
Then add what you want to, or not, according to the recipe you've chosen.
The other basics are of course:
Rice noodles, soaked in water until they are nice and soft (45 minutes works well for the ones I use, but it will vary by noodle)
Mung bean sprouts
One or two dried chilies
Tiny dried shrimp (not too many)
A protein (I use The Best Tofu Marinade in The World, of course, then oven fry it), but if you treat it right any meat will be great
I like to saute a couple cloves of garlic and the chilies (I grind these two up in a mortar and pestle first) in 1/3 cup of peanut oil, then add the scallions, the drained noodles, then the palm sugar, radish, fish sauce, and dried shrimp all quickly one after another, tossing with each, moving pretty quickly; then toss real well; then move the noodles over to fry the egg, then mix it in; turn off the heat; toss in the sprouts and lime juice and the protein and the fresh herbs, then serve with ground nuts and lime slices and some hot sauce.
That's it. But that's just my version. There is a secret ingredient, but it is so kick ass that I can't believe it, and I've never seen it in any recipes, and so I'm going to hang on to it for the cookbook. Or the noodle shop. Something that will make me some money. Any noodle shop investors out there?
I know that's not a proper recipe, but I don't mean it to be. I don't want to give you a recipe. I want to tell you how easy it is, once you know the magic sauce ingredients, and let you go from there.
One more thing I'll say: don't skimp on the oil. The noodles need it for that slipperiness that's so much fun, and that facilitates all the other flavors.
Go at it.