As much as I love cooking at home, I have to admit that I most definitely have a weak spot for take-out. When I lived in Michigan, my go-to was a tiny Chinese restaurant that made a great Kung Pao Tofu. Now that I'm in Seattle, my favorite take-out is a nearby Thai restaurant where the owners are nice enough to make an order of vegan Pad Thai on request. So delicious... and so not at all good for me. I haven't indulged since I started watching my weight four months ago. So far I'm down 20 pounds and up 1000% in Pad Thai cravings. Solution? Homemade Pad Thai. Pad Thai will never be health food, but made at home, it can be healthier food.
I'll be honest - until I started researching this recipe, I had no idea how to make Pad Thai. At all. I knew there was fish sauce. I assumed a wok was involved. And... that's all I had. I happened upon a "Pad Thai" episode of Throwdown with Bobby Flay and this fantastically informative Pad Thai for Beginners post on Chez Pim, and my education began. Along the way, I learned the following:
1. Pad Thai sauce should balance the four key flavors of Thai cuisine: Sour (tamarind pulp), Salty (fish sauce), Sweet (palm sugar), and Spice (Thai chili pepper).
2. The sour element in Pad Thai sauce is from tamarind pulp. You can find tamarind in an array of forms: whole pods, a rustic seeded pulp/block, or a fully-prepared, ready-to-use paste. I went with the latter for convenience.
3. There are a shocking amount of bad Pad Thai recipes floating around the internets. Like... really bad. Ketchup as an ingredient bad. Confession: I first attempted to make this recipe with spaghetti squash standing in for rice noodles - you know, to reduce the calories - and it totally ruined the both the Pad Thai's flavor and authenticity. Some substitutions just don't do a dish justice.
With that last point in mind, I was intent on creating a vegan Pad Thai that was healthy, authentic, and accessible. You'll be able to find everything in a grocery store with a well-stocked "Ethnic" aisle, a hippie-esque cooperative/Whole Foods, or your local Asian grocery. For the sauce, tamarind paste was the one non-negotiable - there is just no substitute for the tart, earthy flavor of those little pods. I deemed palm sugar too difficult to find, but discovered turbinado sugar to be a good approximation of the less-refined sweetener. Fish sauce posed the biggest challenge with its complex fermented flavor, but it turns out that soy sauce and red miso provide similar notes of salt and ferment-y "funk". Last but not least, I turned to good old Sriracha as a dependable stand in for Thai red peppers.
After a month of working on this recipe, I'm insanely happy with it. The flavor is so spot-on that I think it could easily pass for the real thing. On top of the yum-factor, one serving clocks in at a respectable 440 calories, making this a guilt-free way to satisfy any take-out cravings that may come your way.
Vegan Pad Thai
Prep Time: 60 minutes to soak the noodles, during which you can prep everything else
Cook Time: 10 minutes for the sauce, 10 minutes for the Pad Thai
8 ounces thin rice stick noodles (often labeled "Chantaboon" or "Pad Thai" Noodles)
8 ounces extra firm tofu
cooking spray (or additional peanut oil if you prefer)
2 tablespoons peanut oil
4 ounces bean sprouts or 1 large carrot, julienned
1/2 cup chopped green onions, plus extra for garnish
1/2 cup Vegan Pad Thai Sauce (recipe below)
1/4 cup roasted unsalted peanuts, finely chopped
1 lime, sliced into wedges
Vegan Pad Thai Sauce
makes 1 cup, enough for 2 batches of Pad Thai
1/2 cup water
1/3 cup low sodium soy sauce
1/3 cup turbinado sugar
2 tablespoons ready-to-use tamarind paste (such as Aunt Patty's or Neera's)
1 tablespoon red miso
1 tablespoon Sriracha sauce
Prep the Noodles and Tofu:
Cover the dried noodles in cold water and soak for 60 minutes, then drain well. In the meantime, you'll prep the tofu and make the sauce. Let's start with the tofu.
Drain the tofu, pat dry, and slice 8 ounces of the block into bite-size pieces. At this point, I really like giving my tofu a quick saltwater brine - a technique suggested by Andrea Nguyen. This step, while optional, really enhances both the tofu's flavor and its ability to form a super-crispy crust - I highly recommend trying it. Here's the deal: Bring 4 cups of water and 1 tablespoon of salt to a boil, then pour it over your tofu in a heat-proof container until tofu is completely covered. Soak in the brine for 10 minutes, then drain water and pat dry. Set aside until ready to stir-fry.
Make the Pad Thai Sauce:
It's hugely important to have your sauce ready to go before you start stir-frying, so go ahead and get this step out of the way while the noodles are soaking. In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, add the water, soy sauce, sugar, tamarind paste, red miso, and Sriracha. Whisk everything together and bring to a simmer. Simmer for 5 minutes, or until the sugar, tamarind paste, and miso have melted and the sauce has thickened to a fluid, syrup-y consistency (you'll end up with a tad over 1 cup of sauce). Taste for seasoning - I like my sauce to lead with a good level of salt and sour, rounded out by gentler notes of sweet and spice. Depending on the strength of your ingredients, you might need to tweak the sauce one way or the other. Remember that the sauce should taste over-seasoned in the pot - it needs that intensity to flavor the relative blandness of the noodles and the tofu once you put the dish together.
Make the Pad Thai:
Cooking this dish is fast like lightening, so do yourself a favor and assemble your prepared ingredients - noodles, tofu, veggies, and sauce - within arm's reach from your stovetop. I also find it helpful to set a cup of water nearby, in case you need to loosen the sauce/noodles while stir-frying. Place a wok or stainless steel skillet over medium-high heat and let it get nice and hot. Test the temperature with a drop of oil - the oil should shimmer, but not smoke, immediately upon hitting the pan. Adjust the heat if necessary to hit your stovetop's stirfry sweet spot. Once you're there, add a bit of cooking spray (or oil), followed by the tofu. Let the tofu cook for a couple minutes on each side until golden and crisp, then transfer to a small bowl, toss with a couple spoonfuls of the sauce, and set aside.
Add 2 tablespoons of oil to your hot wok/skillet, followed by the drained noodles, bean sprouts/carrot, green onions, and the remaining Pad Thai sauce. Quickly toss everything together, breaking up any noodle clumps (feel free to add a splash of water as necessary), and cook until the noodles are tender but al dente, about 3-5 minutes. During the last minute of cooking, add the saucy tofu into the mix to reheat. Once the noodles are done, immediately remove from heat and portion out your servings. Top each serving with some green onion and peanuts, alongside a wedge or two of lime.