What Does Pad Thai Taste Like? Is It Delicious?

Pad Thai is a commonly-served street food dish in Thailand. It’s gained popularity in restaurants all over the United States as well, and is so popular that most cooking hobbyists have probably tried a rendition of their own. 

If you’ve been hesitant to try it out or are wondering what Pad Thai tastes like, take it from us:

Pad Thai is one of the most delicious noodle dishes out there, and is totally worth the try. Its savory peanut-and-citrus flavor is unique and addicting. 

What’s So Special About Pad Thai?

Thai food’s popularity has really risen in the United States over the last 15 years, along with the population of Thai people. Pad Thai is one of the most popular foods both here in the US and in Thailand. Where did Pad Thai originate, and what’s so special about it?

Pad Thai was invented by a man named Plaek Phibunsongkhram, known colloquially as Phibun. He was a Thai revolutionary and helped head a 1932 military coup to overthrow the Thai monarchy. 

He eventually found himself as the Thai Minister of Defense. In the spirit of patriotism, he decided that Thailand deserves a national dish: thus, Pad Thai came to be. 

Phibun applied the Chinese method of stir-frying noodles, then combined them with Thai spices and peanuts, palm sugar, and tamarinds. When Thailand underwent a rice shortage during WWII, the dish became even more popular: Phibun encouraged residents to eat noodles instead of rice. 

Phibun was very concerned during his leadership with the development of a national identity for Thailand. This national identity needed to be modern, in an effort to improve the national economy. Pad Thai also offered the benefit of nutrition for Thai people, who were struggling in a time of economic downturn. 

By the end of WWII, Pad Thai was such a staple that the recipe travelled with Thai immigants to the United States. This led to where the recipe stands today, a popular and much-craved dish in many regions of the world that makes enthusiasts want to visit Thailand. 

Pad Thai was, however, a bit of an odd choice for a Thai national dish. The only actual Thai ingredient in Pad Thai is pounded dry chillies. The rest of the ingredients, as well as the name kway teow (noodles) pad in the original translation, are Chinese. 

The name translates directly to Thai-style stir-fried noodles. Sort of odd for a national dish to be Thai-style, rather than Thai, huh? Oh well. Thai or Chinese, it’s remarkably delicious and commonly known as Pad Thai. 

How Do You Describe the Taste of Pad Thai?

Pad Thai is traditionally and authentically made with thin rice noodles, onion, egg, ground peanuts, and lots of bean sprouts. Chefs often add shallots and garlic, as well as some kind of protein – most commonly chicken, beef, tofu, or shrimp.

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The Pad Thai ingredients are stir-fried together in Pad Thai sauce, which requires tamarind paste, palm sugar, and fish sauce. 

Tamarind is a sticky, tree-growing pod fruit with a slightly sour and slightly sweet flavor. Palm sugar is simply sugar derived from a palm tree. Fish sauce is a punch-packing condiment made from fermented fish. You can make the sauce spicy by adding chili sauce.

These three ingredients together make a sauce that’s sweet, tangy, and savory all at once. 

Every component of Pad Thai adds to the flavor profile. There’s no fluff in those ingredients. 

So, what does Pad Thai taste like, all things combined?

Firstly, Pad Thai tastes substantial and filling from the noodles. Glass noodles are slightly thin and slick, like clear linguine. They blend together seamlessly with the refreshing, crunchy bean sprouts. These are the main textural components of Pad Thai, until you get a taste of the peanuts. 

The ground peanuts do a lot of heavy lifting in Pad Thai. They offer a richness to the dish that really makes the flavor complex. 

Finally, if you’re trying Pad Thai, you likely have squeezed lime over top of the dish. This finishes off the rich, tangy flavors of the sauce and ingredients with a brightness, so all aspects of your flavor palate are satiated.

The beautiful combination of these flavors is what makes Pad Thai so addicting and satisfying!

How Does Pad Thai Get its Taste?

All of the ingredients we just mentioned are are stir-fried together. Proper stir-fry requires a hot wok.

A wok is a large, wide, shallowly-curved pan with a small flat bottom. The shape allows the pan itself to get really hot, but as you swirl the food around, it won’t burn.

Woks also usually have a naturally non-stick quality of them, so they’re especially useful for high heats. It’s unlikely for your food to burn in a wok if you’re using it correctly, and constantly stirring the food around. 

In the stir-fry process, chefs are careful to not overuse any one ingredient. This is especially true for fish sauce, which has an extremely aromatic flavor and can quickly overpower any dish. 

When noodles are correctly stir-fried in sauce in a hot wok, they shouldn’t come out super saucy. It’s almost like the sauce absorbs into the noodles, so they should actually come out a bit dry and very flavorful.

What’s the Best Way to Eat Pad Thai?

Pad Thai is often served with add-ons. Things like fresh lime wedges, mint, more bean sprouts, roasted chili pepper, and roasted peanuts come on a little plate to be added as desired. 

Thai dried chili is the most traditional of these add-ons. The chilis are first roasted in an oven, then grinded into a powder. It’s very potent, so be careful with how much you add.

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Fresh lime will really change the composition of pad thai, though. That bit of tart freshness takes the dish to the next level. It balances and simultaneously enhances the dish’s sweetness and tanginess through a magical contrast. 

What Food Goes Best with Pad Thai?

Here are some great side dish options for pad thai. 

  • Chicken Satay is a Thai chicken skewer. The chicken is marinated in red curry, sugar, and salt, then served with a peanut sauce on the side. If you don’t have red curry, here are some substitutes
  • Asian cucumber salad is a great option because it won’t fill you up before you try the pad thai. These light, spicy, and hydrating cucumbers are a great palate cleanser as well. 
  • Tom Yum Soup is a good option on a cold day. It’s a hot-and-sour, herbal Thai soup that will warm you up and whet your palate. 
  • Shrimp Tempura would be great either on the side of your pad thai, or served on top. 
  • Thai Green Papaya Salad is probably the best option on this list. It has a lot of the same flavors as pad thai, delivered a different way. For this reason, it’d pair really nicely. 

Related Questions

What’s the Red Thing in Pad Thai?

If you’re seeing little red “things” in your pad thai, they’re probably Thai chillies. These are super spicy but super flavorful, and most United States Thai restaurants remove the seeds to bring the spice down. If you’re spice tolerant, they’re totally worth the try.

Should Pad Thai be Wet or Dry?

If pad thai is cooked properly in a wok, it should be dry. 

Some restaurants don’t have access to tamarind or palm sugar, and cook pad thai in a ketchup-based sauce. This is super inauthentic, and probably shouldn’t be considered pad thai. Even though the dish is usually red, it shouldn’t contain tomatoes. 

A traditional pad thai will clearly be sauced, but the noodles shouldn’t be dripping. 

What’s Better, Chow Mein or Pad Thai?

Both chow mein and pad thai are delicious. They’re also pretty different in flavor, so there’s not really a need to choose.

Chow mein is tossed in soy sauce and contains vegetables like cabbage. It’s a bit heavier and more savory than pad thai.

If you’re super hungry, opt for chow mein. Otherwise, pad thai has a more complex flavor makeup. 

So, Will You Be Trying Pad Thai?

We sure hope so. It’s truly one of the tastiest Asian dishes out there.

Plus, you’re probably not going to find another dish with such a beautiful balance of unique flavors. Pad Thai sauce tastes like peanut, lime, sweetness, cravings satisfied… pure joy!