A Brief History of Pad Thai

Richard WF Chen/Shutterstock
Richard WF Chen/Shutterstock / Richard WF Chen/Shutterstock

Pad thai is probably Thailand’s most widely known dish around the world, but it wasn't even part of the country’s cuisine until the 1930s. That’s when Thai Prime Minister Plaek Phibunsongkhram—or Phibun—rose to power. Under Phibun’s rule, the Thai government distributed a standardized recipe for pad thai to street vendors, and the meal quickly spread. Today it’s eaten not just in Thailand, but across the globe. Philbun’s plan was successful, but there was one problem: Thailand’s so-called national dish may not have been all that Thai. Part fusion dish, part government propaganda, pad thai has a complicated background.

The Political Origins of Pad Thai

The origins of stir-fried noodles in Thailand can actually be traced back centuries before Phibun rose to power. The Chinese first made noodles 4000 years ago, and they started stir-frying food in woks sometime after that. In the 18th century, Chinese traders introduced stir-fried noodles to the region that is Thailand today. These early noodle dishes may have been precursors to pad thai, which generally consists of stir-fried rice noodles served with vegetables, bean sprouts, variable proteins—including peanuts—and flavorful condiments.

After Phibun helped end the absolute Thai monarchy as a military officer in the early 1930s and came to power himself later in the decade, the destabilized nation was vulnerable to colonization. Phibun made it his mission to create a unified national identity that would bring his people together. His efforts included changing the name of the country from Siam to Thailand, introducing a new national anthem, and promoting a new national dish: pad thai. 

Now, to be clear, it’s not like pad thai was cooked up in some government laboratory somewhere. In Gastronomica, the Journal for Food Studies, Phibun’s son recalled it being served in the family household, possibly invented by the family cook or an aunt. It may have been based on an old Chinese dish. Whatever the case, it served Phibun’s needs perfectly.

Phibun introduced 12 Cultural Mandates meant to modernize and unify the nation. These mandates sought to promote patriotism while at the same time encouraging more Westernized behaviors. Mandate 10, for example, effectively forbade many traditional Thai garments while Mandate 5 told citizens to wear clothing made from Thai products. In a similar vein, Mandate 5 said that people should eat food made from exclusively Thai ingredients. 

Pad thai embodies the contradictory impulses behind the mandates: Phibun chose the dish to represent the nation, but most of the ingredients used to make it come from other parts of the world. Mung beans were originally cultivated in India, and peanuts were first grown in South America. Tamarind comes from tropical Africa and chili peppers from South and Central America. Fish sauce—which has its own complicated international history—is another common item used in pad thai. 

Of course, the fact that pad thai uses global ingredients doesn’t make it any less Thai. But by Phibun’s own nationalistic standards, it may have fallen short. In Thailand, even into the 1900s, fried noodles were still strongly associated with Chinese cuisine. Some historians think pad thai actually originated with Chinese cooks. Its original name—kway teow pad thai—means “Thai-style stir-fried noodles” in Chinese, which would be a pretty odd thing for a Thai chef to name a dish. 

Pad Thai Patriotism

Prime Minister Phibun soon had other reasons for promoting pad thai, though. The early 1940s were a time of economic hardship in his country. World War II had begun, and the conflict—combined with destructive flooding—led to a rice shortage. One bowl of rice could be used to make two bowls of rice noodles, so Phibun touted noodles as an alternative starch in hopes of stretching the nation’s rice supply. 

Using the slogan “noodle is your lunch,” Phibun’s propaganda campaign presented eating the dish every day as a patriotic act. He wanted to promote a diet that was cheap, filling, and nutritious. This could be why the recipe for pad thai features so many forms of protein compared to other noodle dishes from the region. In addition to a primary protein like chicken, shrimp, or tofu, pad thai usually contains stir-fried eggs, bean sprouts, and chopped peanuts, giving it the potential to be a full meal.

Thai food is famous for integrating and balancing many flavors in a single bowl. In pad thai, lime and tamarind add both acidity and sweetness. Fish sauce or other seafood components like dried shrimp bring saltiness and the rich depth of flavor known as umami. Crushed dried chilies—an essential ingredient in the country's cuisine—add a layer of heat.

This balance of flavors may help explain pad thai’s international appeal. In less than a century, the dish has managed to become one of Thailand’s most recognizable culinary exports. But that seemingly overnight success wasn’t entirely organic. Much like its proliferation in Thailand, pad thai’s reception abroad was deliberately orchestrated by the Thai government. 

Pad Thai Around the World

In 2001, Thailand launched a campaign with the goal of opening thousands of Thai restaurants around the world. They used many strategies to achieve this, including training chefs at home and sending them to different countries, as well as offering loans that Thai immigrants could use to open restaurants abroad. 

If a foreign investor was interested in opening a Thai restaurant, the Thai government could provide them with a list of restaurant models to choose from. The three main models came with pre-planned menus and decor to fit various price points. Even the names were picked out ahead of time: Elephant Jump for the cheapest option, Cool Basil for the mid-tier restaurant, and Golden Leaf for the pricey one. 

Thailand’s campaign seems to have worked. Between 2001 and 2018, the number of Thai restaurants outside of Thailand nearly tripled. But how exactly did that benefit the country? 

By opening Thai restaurants around the world, Thailand hoped to boost its international image. People who fall in love with Thai food at home are more likely to visit the country as tourists, infusing money into the local economy. The campaign was also a subtle way for Thailand to strengthen its relations with foreign nations, a tactic known as gastrodiplomacy. So Thailand didn’t just share its delicious food with the world as an act of altruism. 

Perhaps dating back to its government-engineered early days, pad thai has a reputation for not being particularly authentic—a notoriously slippery, if not meaningless, label in an ever-evolving world. But there are plenty of people in Thailand who will defend the dish and its Thai bona fides. It may not be the national dish today, but it is eaten throughout the country. It’s not something people usually make at home, but it’s a popular street food item in cities like Bangkok, where it’s often served as a late-night snack instead of the hearty meal it was once intended to be. 

It makes sense that such a tasty dish would persist, even if the context it has enjoyed in has changed. Despite all the effort that’s been made to promote pad thai over the years, a bowl of sweet and salty noodles has never been a hard sell.

This story has been adapted from an episode of Food History on YouTube.