I can not get enough of south-east Asian food. There is such variety, so many exciting tastes and textures to explore; soft and pillowy bao buns, silky noddles, crunchy pickles bursting with sourness, sticky rice, crispy fried tofu, delicate and yielding dumplings. That’s not to mention that powerful and punchy condiments; soy sauce, wasabi, rice vinegars, sesame paste, fermented black beans, all the many chilli pastes, sauces and oils. I’m going to need to stop listing things because my mouth is watering, but you get the idea.
I particularly love that combination of sour, salty, sweet, and spicy that you find in a lot of Vietnamese and Korean dishes, and certainly in Pad Thai. Traditionally, this Thai national dish is made with fish sauce, prawns, and egg, and in my version I’m looking to make something with equal depth of flavour, both rich and tangy with a multitude of textures, but without the animal products.
The main sour component comes from tamarind; a strange fruit whose fiberous pulp is encased in a pod and has increased sourness or sweetness depending on how ripe it is. You can use fresh tamarind but the paste is more convenient and easier to get hold of. The challenge is judging the right quantity of paste as they can vary greatly in concentration. On the whole, tamarind concentrate (as the name suggests) is more concentrated so you shouldn’t use as much, whereas paste is less so and you may need a little more. However, I have bought pastes that were far more like concentrates so don’t just go by the label. The darker and runnier the substance the more concentrated, and if you’re unsure it’s best to start with a little less and taste and adjust as you see fit.
For the saltiness, traditional recipes use fish sauce or a combination of fish and soy sauce. Soy sauce or tamari is fine to use as a replacement; you still get plenty of delicious salty and umami flavour. However you can go a little further by adding some seaweed seasoning. You can buy seaweed sprinkles or sea salt with added seaweed in larger supermarkets, Chinese supermarkets or online. Or, if you have some nori or any other dried seaweed such as kelp or dulse, you can blend a small piece of this with your soy sauce to create your own vegan fish sauce.
For the sweetness and spiciness, I kill two birds with one stone (not literally – I am vegan after all) by using brown rice syrup and sweet chilli sauce. Palm sugar is more common in Thai recipes, and you can always replace the syrup with this or with another fine sugar – caster or soft brown for example. I use sweet chilli sauce because many people with have it in their cupboard and it adds a subtle kick which you can build on by adding fresh chilli to the stir fry. If you don’t have any sweet chilli sauce you could always use a smaller quantity of another chilli or hot sauce and increase the amount of syrup.
So that’s the sauce, but the flavour doesn’t stop there. Fresh chilli, ginger and garlic provide the aromatics, and a few condiments on the table – some some soy sauce and lime wedges – can provide a little extra sourness or saltiness as needed.
Traditional recipes will often have tofu cubes as well as prawns for some extra texture and protein, but in my version I also use it as a replacement for the egg. I cube half the tofu and smoosh the other half until it looks like overcooked scrambled egg. Both get seasoned liberally with salt and pepper (you can season the tofu ‘egg’ with black salt if you have it) but will be added at different stages.
The directions for cooking may seem a little over elaborate but there is good reason! Traditionally pad Thai uses dried noodles that are soaked only in cold water before being fried in the wok until soft, with all the other ingredients added as they cook. This requires having exactly the right sort of noodle, a reasonable amount of patience and the requirement that you are cooking for no more than two people. However it does add something to the flavour and texture of the end result to cook the noodles in the sauce so I didn’t want to discard it altogether. Thus a compromise; the vegetables are scorched in the wok at a very high temperature and then set aside. The noodles are semi-cooked by soaking in hot water for 5 mins, then fried in the wok with the sauce at slightly lower temperature. The tofu egg is added when the noodles are just cooked so it can brown a little and be stirred through.
If you are grain-free, you don’t have to miss out! You can buy vermicelli noodles made from mung beans rather than rice at some larger supermarkets, Chinese supermarkets and online. These are a very different texture to pad Thai noodles and would easily overcook and disintegrate if cooked with the same method, but I provide instructions for using these in the recipe notes below.
Then it’s simply a case of a case of adding the vegetables to heat through, chopping some coriander and salted peanuts for a little extra flavour and crunch. There is some debate about the proper utensils for this dish – forks are used a commonly as chopsticks are in Thailand and there are passionate advocates on either side. My advice? Use whatever best enables you to shovel this pad Thai into your mouth in vast and joyous quantities.
Vegan Pad Thai
A rich, tangy and vibrant pad Thai
Vegan, Gluten-free, Grain-free option
For the sauce:
- 2–3 tbsp tamarind paste
- 5 tbsp tamari (or light soy sauce if not gluten-free)
- 2 tbsp sweet chilli sauce
- 2 tbsp brown rice syrup (or agave / palm sugar / caster sugar / soft brown sugar)
- 1 tsp dried seaweed* (optional)
For the stir fry:
- 400g firm tofu
- salt and black pepper to taste
- 500–600g mixed vegetables** (e.g. approx 1 red onion, 1 red pepper, 1 large carrot, ½ head of cabbage and 150g bean sprouts)
- 3–4 garlic cloves
- 2cm ginger
- 1 thai chilli (optional)
- 300g dried 3–5mm flat rice noodles***
- 4 tbsp oil (vegetable / sunflower / groundnut)
- 25g coriander, chopped
- 25g salted peanuts, roughly chopped
- Lime wedges
- Start by making the sauce. Mix 2 tbsp of tamarind paste with 5 tbsp tamari or soy sauce, 2 tbsp sweet chilli sauce, 2 tbsp syrup or sugar, and 1 tsp of dried seaweed (if using). Taste and add the extra 1 tbsp tamarind if necessary – you want a very tangy and salty sauce, just off-set by the sweetness of the sugar and chilli.
- Cut 200g firm tofu into 2cm cubes, and crush the other 200g with your hands until it has a mince-like texture. Season both liberally with salt and pepper.
- Prepare all of your vegetables; finely slice the onion, cut the carrots and peppers into thin strips or batons, and chop the cabbage. Grate the garlic and ginger and finely chop the chilli (if using).
- Put the rice noodles in a heat proof bowl or saucepan. Boil the kettle and pour the water over the noodles so they are completely submerged. Leave for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, then drain.
- While the noodles are soaking, put a wok on a high heat with 1 tbsp oil, and once hot add the prepared mixed vegetables, excluding the beansprouts, and the tofu cubes. Stir fry for 3-4 minutes until starting to char, then tip into a heat-proof bowl.
- Return the wok to the heat, reduce to medium-high, and add the remaining 3 tbsp oil. Add the ginger, garlic and chilli and stir before quickly adding the drained noodles. Cook for a minute, stirring constantly, then add the sauce and continue stirring. If the noodles start to look a little dry add a couple of tablespoons of water. Cook for another 2-3 minutes then start testing the noodles to see if cooked through – when they are just al dente, push the noodles to the side of the wok and add the crushed tofu, pulling the noodles over the top so the tofu sits at the bottom of the pan. Fry for a couple of minutes so the tofu starts to brown, then stir.
- Add the vegetables back into the wok along with the beansprouts and stir fry for another 1–2 minutes until everything is warmed through. Pile into bowls and scatter with coriander leaves and a few crushed salted peanuts, and serve with a lime wedge on the side.
*If you have seaweed flakes these can be mixed in with the sauce, or if using dried seaweed such as nori, kelp or dulse then blend with the soy sauce before adding the rest of the ingredients. If you have salt seasoned with seaweed only add a little ¼–½ tsp to avoid the dish being overly salty.
**The vegetables listed are just suggestions. You could also use yellow or orange peppers, broccoli, kale, mushrooms, baby sweetcorn, sugar snap peas or mange tout, as long as the combined weight is about 500–600g and they are chopped so they’re roughly the same size.
***If you are grain-free, or using any noodles other than flat rice noodles, then you will need to cook the noodles separately. Vermicelli noodles made from mung beans are a great grain-free option. Cook the noodles according to packet instructions and rinse with cold water once cooked. Add 2 tbsp oil to the wok and when hot, add the mixed vegetables (minus beansprouts), cubed tofu, ginger, garlic and chilli. Cook for 3–4 minutes then push to the side of the wok and add the remaining 2 tbsp oil, along with the crushed tofu. Let it sit at the bottom of the pan for a minute or two to brown then stir in. along with the beansprouts. Once the vegetables are very nearly cooked, add the sauce and then the cooked noodles, and stir fry for another 1–2 mins until everything is hot.