From the Ground Up: Tamarind Pulp, Pad Thai Sauce, and Pad Thai

When you take the simple steps to get this right, you will never want to go to a restaurant again.

thai-flag-small Thailand


LET’S TALK ABOUT Thai food. I owe all I know about -legit- Thai food to Leela from SheSimmers. Just stop reading here and go visit her site and just on her homepage you will get sucked into all the amazing recipes. We have all done red curry paste with coconut milk and chicken and veggies over rice, which is great and a frequent quick dinner for us, but after finding her site, I will never need to go to a Thai restaurant again! This recipe is so delicious and complex. It nails it completely. Now, we make everything from scratch in this recipe, and that is why it is so great and perfectly balanced. We make our own tamarind paste, to base sauce to the Pad Thai. It’s really easy, it just teaks a few extra steps compared to the fail bottled-sauce-throw-together-in-one-pan version. It is definitely worth it and will completely impress anyone you serve it to.

LET’S TALK ABOUT the ingredients in this recipe. I was able to find all the ingredients at both my small Asian markets. Now, my husband, who is half-Asian (Korean) hates the smell of fish sauce. He will walk in the door, smell it, and say, “oh…fish sauce…” But, fish sauce is an imperative ingredient in Pad Thai. If you have the same aversion, just watch this clip from Mind of a Chef’s “Rotten” episode (I hate you, Netflix for taking this off!), and maybe it will help. Well, just watch it anyway:

I love anchovies. I think most great cooking cultures use them in some way. Spain has their Boquerones pintxo/tapa, Koreans use them in soup, like in my post Kimchi Party! My Korean Mother-in-Law’s Kimchi Chigae, Italians use it in pasta sauce, SE Asia uses fish sauce in almost everything, from Nuoc Cham sauce to this Pad Thai, and it just gives everything such a great level of flavor and umami. I think the best pairing in the world is fish sauce and sugar. Forget PB and J, citrus and tarragon, tomato and basil, orange and chocolate, it is all about fish sauce and sugar.

Ok, so go check out Leela’s great webiste about her Pad Thai. There are 5 parts to getting this right. I will summarize a bunch, but she really explains all parts so well. So basically, the only thing I can’t get is the “wok smell”, as she describes. I just have a gas stove and turn it to the highest heat, so it will get caramelization, but it’s not a wok that has years of seasoning and flavor over a butane who-knows-how-hot flame…but that’s ok. She just suggests a 12″ frying pan to get the best heat distribution for our small gas stoves, compared to a wok. Everything else is very doable! So, start by making the tamarind pulp by soaking a block of tamarind till it’s a pulp and running it through a sieve to get rid of the seeds. Then, with that pulp, make your own Pad Thai Sauce/Basic Thai Stir Fry Sauce from scratch with just 4 ingredients (for the leftover sauce, just use this recipe Caramelized Chicken Ga Kho from the Ravenous Couple or Vietnamese Caramel Chicken from Rasa Malaysia for inspiration). Get the Pad Thai size noodle and rehydrate them until soft but still chewier than al dente, still an “unpleasant chewiness”. She soaks them, but I just put them in boiling water, off the heat. Then, get your stir fry ingredients and garnishes together. I use them all except the dried shrimp (hard to find the right kind) and banana blossoms, which I have found frozen but just haven’t tried yet. The second most important ingredient in this dish, for me, is the shrimp paste in soya oil. Once I tired this, I realized it was the secret ingredient for delicious Thai food. I add it to my red curry also. Other than that, you really could just find an easy substitute for most things, and it wouldn’t dramatically change the flavor since you have your amazing base sauce. If you make this sauce, it will be great no matter what you have or don’t have. I have also made this dish with thinly sliced chicken instead of the shrimp and tofu and that is great too. Just sub it in the place of the shrimp and tofu and cook it until it is done. Anyway you do it, the pulp and sauce are the true magic!


My favorite brand of fish sauce is the dang cheap Tiparos fish sauce. I have Squid brand right now, but I will switch back over to Tiparos. The flavor is so good. Dang. And don’t put it in the fridge or it will crystalize! Update: My favorite is currently Vietnamese brand Three Crabs Brand, but if you feel loyal to a Thai brand for this dish, that’s fine too!

Also, get a digital scale! I got my cheap one at Walmart for, like, $7. It really makes this sauce perfect using the weight measurements, and is better for general baking as well!

WHO YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT making great Thai food: Mark, Ying and Dwight @eatingthaifood from Eating Thai Food, Natty, Peter and team @thaitable of Thai Table, and Leela @SheSimmers from the great SheSimmers and her cookbook, Simple Thai Food.


From the Ground Up: Tamarind Paste, Pad Thai Sauce, and Pad Thai

From the Ground Up: Tamarind Paste, Pad Thai Sauce, and Pad Thai. Winner for Team Korea!

Tamarind Pulp, Pad Thai Sauce and Pad Thai

Adapted from SheSimmers, serves 3-4, medium/a lot -level fuss, about 45 mins-1 hour to make.

Tamarind Pulp

about 20 mins to make, makes 2+ portions of pulp for Pad Thai Sauce.

14 oz block of dried tamarind pulp

1 3/4 (14 fl oz) cup water

  1. In a medium mixing bowl, soak the block of tamarind in the water, about 20 minutes. Once softened, work the water and pulp together with your hands until homogenous. Once mixed together, run this pulp through a sieve into a small bowl until the pulp is through and the seeds are left behind, using the back of a ladle in the sieve, if needed. Can be stored in the freezer in an airtight container or ziplock bag.

Pad Thai Sauce

about 10 mins to make, makes 2+ portions for Pad Thai.

3/4 cup (180 g) fish sauce

1 cup (226 g) palm sugar, grated or crushed

1/4 cup (60 g) light brown sugar

1/2 cup + 2 TBS (150 g) prepared tamarind pulp

  1. Add all ingredients to a medium sauce pan and turn heat to med-low, just to dissolve everything together, but not reduce. Stir occasionally. Once everything has dissolved and is homogenous, remove from heat and set aside. Once cool, store in an airtight container and keep in the fridge. Also can be used as a base stir fry sauce for meats and veggies, etc.

Pad Thai

serves 3-4, 10+ mins prep, 5-7 minutes for the stir-fry.

1/3 cup neutral oil, such as sunflower, divided

4 oz dried (2-3 millimeters wide) rice noodles

2/3 cup prepared Pad Thai Sauce, or to taste

1 TBS shrimp paste in soya oil

2 large garlic cloves, grated through a rasp or microplane

1 medium shallot, peeled and minced

1/4 cup finely- chopped preserved radishes

1/2 lb extra firm tofu, diced medium

1/2 lb large shrimp, deveined

2 large eggs, cracked into a bowl

6 stalks of Chinese chives, chopped into about 1″ pieces, divided

2 cups bean sprouts, rinsed under cold water, divided

1/2 cup dry-roasted peanuts

Garnish with more sugar, dried red pepper flakes, fish sauce, lime wedges, dry-roasted peanuts, bean sprouts soaked in ice water, Chinese chive stalks

(Make sure all your prep is done. The stir-fry comes together very quickly, so make sure everything is ready to go! Doubling this recipe at one time doesn’t work; over-crowding the pan will only steam the ingredients rather than caramelize them, which is what we want! So only this allotted portion at a time!)

  1. Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add rice noodles, turn off heat, and soak about 3-4 minutes, until pliable but still underdone and slightly chewy. Drain and rinse under cold water, set aside.
  2. In a 12″ skillet, add half the oil and set skillet over high heat. Once “shimmering” and just short of smoking, add the rice noodles and shake the pan back and forth rigorously until the noodles are evenly coated with the oil. Once evenly coated, let them sit for a moment in one spot and caramelize, about 30 sec-1 min. Then, add the Pad Thai Sauce and shrimp paste in soya oil, shaking the pan back and forth, using the spatula to scrape any noodles from the bottom and keeping everything moving and getting evenly coated.
  3. Once evenly coated with the sauce, scoot the noodles into a pile onto one side of the skillet. Move that side of the skillet off the heat, so the noodles are not directly on the burner, without the pan tipping off. On the bare part of the pan, add the rest of your oil. Once hot, add garlic, shallot, radish and sauté for about 20 seconds, until fragrant. Then add the tofu and shrimp, and sauté about 1 minute, until the shrimp is almost cooked and pink.
  4. Scoot everything to the top of the noodles, then add the eggs, breaking the yolk and slightly swirling them together. Let them cook, flat, flipping over if needed, then once done, break them up into bite-size pieces. Put the whole skillet back on the heat, and stir everything together, shaking the pan back and forth. Turn off the heat.
  5. Add the bean sprouts and half of the Chinese chives, and toss everything together to evenly incorporated. Serve on your favorite serving platter, top with peanuts, and let rest about 5-10 minutes, when the flavors come through the best. Serve up and garnish how you wish.

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