Pad Thai: The Forgotten History of Thailand’s National Dish

Pad Thai, Thailand.

Pad Thai is a popular street food dish across Thailand and it’s on every menu in Thai restaurants that cater to farangs (foreigners). Popular as it is, how many of you actually know the fascinating history behind the noodley dish?

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What is it made of?

Pad Thai is made from rice noodles, stir-fried with eggs, tofu, tamarind paste, fish sauce, dried shrimps, garlic, palm sugar and red chilli pepper and frequently served with lime wedges, bamboo shoots, spring onions, raw banana flowers, and topped with a sprinkling of peanuts. Yum! Anyone who’s ever been to Thailand, or even a Thai restaurant, will surely have tried this, the most famous of Thai dishes!

Pad Thai: What’s in a name?

The original name of Pad Thai, is ‘Gway Teow Pad Thai.’ Gway Teow is a Chinese word for ‘rice noodles’, which hints at a Chinese influence.  Some people believe that a similar creation to Pad Thai was brought to the Ayutthaya Kingdom by Chinese Traders in the 1700s. The rest of the name offers even more clues… ‘Pad’ means ‘fried’ and ‘Thai’, of course, means Thai (as in Thai style). Fried Thai? What’s that all about?

Cheap pad Thai being sold on the Khao San Road, Bangkok.
Cheap Pad Thai being sold on the Khao San Road, Bangkok.

World War II efforts

During World War II, Thailand suffered a shortage of rice due to less production in the rice fields, which coincided with bad flooding. In order to preserve the stocks of this precious grain, the Thai government (under Prime Minister and Military Dictator, Plaek Phibunsonghram) started to promote noodles instead amongst its people. Noodles used only 50% of the grain, so were more economical and cheaper to produce.

Goodbye Rice. Hello Noodles. Thailand’s New National Dish

The government of Thailand created the dish ‘Pad Thai’, in a bid to protect the rice resources of the country. They told the general public that by eating Pad Thai, they were helping their country. At the same time, ‘Phibun’ also wanted to improve the variety of the Thai diet, by encouraging people to eat noodles instead of rice, as well as promoting unity and a sense of national identity across the kingdom by creating a national dish that everyone would love. (Some resources say that there was actually a national competition to create a national dish, of which Pad Thai was the winner!).

“Noodle is Your Lunch”

Pad Thai was promoted heavily up and down the country with the campaign slogan of the government “noodle is your lunch”. The Public Welfare Department gave out recipes of the dish to restaurants and even gave free carts to people willing to sell Pad Thai in the streets. Meanwhile, other types of foreign and Chinese street vendors were banned from selling. Learn more about the Thai obsession with noodles here.

Thip Samai Restaurant in Phra Nakorn, Thailand.
Thip Samai Pad Thai Restaurant in Phra Nakorn, Thailand.

The 12 Cultural Mandates

From 1939 to 1942 Prime Minister, Phibun, issued a series of ‘state decrees’ intended to create a civilised, uniformed and unified country, which would, in turn, help the war efforts. (In truth, he also wanted to limit the influence of the Chinese immigrants at this time.) Some of the Cultural Mandates have faded over time, but some of them, like the first mandate, the changing of the name of the country from Siam to Thailand, has, of course, lasted until today.

These mandates coincided with the creation of Pad Thai, and their aim was ultimately the same – to strengthen Thai identity. (This was also at a time when the surrounding countries in South East Asia were controlled by the French or British governments and Thailand was the only country that had not been colonised.) The Mandates encouraged Thai people to put the nation first in everything they do, by not revealing secrets to foreigners or helping foreigners to open businesses or buy land, and to work hard for their country every day.

Thai people were encouraged to eat only Thai-produced food (and no more than four meals daily at set times!), study and speak only the Thai language, wear European trousers and skirts rather than the wrap-around ‘longyi’ type garment that is worn in Myanmar still today, wear hats in public, stop chewing betel nuts, exercise for 1 hour each day AND make sure you get 6-8 hours of sleep/night! One mandate asserted the importance of honouring the Thai flag and the royal anthem. You can witness this demonstration of respect today, as people stand still for the duration of the national anthem whenever it is played in public. It also called on people to admonish anyone who was not showing sufficient respect to king and country!

The Most Famous Pad Thai Restaurant in Thailand

Today, Thai locals and foreigners still eat Pad Thai with enthusiasm at street food stalls and restaurants up and down the land, although we’re not sure how many people are aware of the fascinating back story. One of the most famous Pad Thai eateries, said to serve the ‘best Pad Thai in Bangkok’ is Thipsamai Restaurant on Mahachai Road in Phra Nakorn, which we ate at recently…

Locals eating pad Thai inside Thip Samai Restaurant in Bangkok.
Locals eating pad Thai inside Thip Samai Restaurant in Bangkok.

We have read contradictions to this story, and there are many other interpretations of the origins of Pad Thai, but we found this one to be the most beguiling!

What’s the story behind your national dish?

Our inspiration for this story…

During our recent stay in Bangkok, my boyfriend and I were invited to take part and review the Night Bike Ride Tour, organised by Bangkok Bed and Bike Hostel on Charoenkrung Road in China Town. Having lived in Thailand for over five years, eight months of which I spent living in Bangkok, I wondered what the bike ride would show me that I hadn’t already seen, or the guide would tell me, that I didn’t already know. I should have realised by now, that no matter how long a farang (foreigner) has spent in Thailand, there are still things to discover about this incredible country!

On the Bangkok Night Bike Ride Tour with Bangkok Bed and Bike.
On the Bangkok Night Bike Ride Tour with Bangkok Bed and Bike.

During the five-hour tour (in which it rained incessantly!), I was taken to parts of the city that I’d never before experienced and was told facts that were interesting and brand new to me. (Such as this story of the history Pad Thai as told by our friendly tour guide, Petie!) We began our tour at the hostel, located on one of the main streets in China Town. This area is a fascinating hotch-potch of street food, shops and Chinese-Thai culture. (Read more about Chinatown here.) Our first stop was Monument Alley – a place where huge Buddha statues are manufactured and sold to temples all over the country.

A bit wet, but enjoying our pad Thai at Thip Samai!
Enjoying our pad Thai!

As the rain started to fall quite heavily, we decided to take a break and go for what has been claimed ‘the best pad Thai in Bangkok.’ This could be found at the restaurant, Thip Samai, (also known as Pad Thai Pratu Pi or Ghost Gate Pad Thai in English ) in Phra Nakorn area of Bangkok. During dinner, Petie told us about the fascinating history of Pad Thai. Despite eating the dish more than 100 times probably, I had never known the history!

Are you an embarrassment when it comes to eating with chopsticks? Read this!

We also sampled some Thai street food desserts outside of the restaurant, before deciding to don ponchos and brave the rain! Next stop was the Grand Palace. It touched me to see the lines of Thai people dressed in black visiting the palace to pay their respects to the late King, even though it had already been 8 months since he had passed away.

According to Thai tradition, there has to be one year of mourning whilst the King’s body lies in the palace, before being cremated. We then crossed over to the other side of the river and visited Wat Arun, the beautiful Temple of the Dawn, before stopping for a shot of some local Thai “medicine” (homemade liquor) known as Yadong. After that, we took the ferry back over the river and made our way back to Chinatown via Bangkok’s 24-hour flower market, which was bustling at 9 pm. (Rush hour is said to be at midnight!) Finally, our last stop was Wat Pho, perhaps my favourite temple in Bangkok.

Many tourists visit Wat Pho during the day, especially as it is famous nationwide as being the home of Thai massage. However, what I didn’t realise was that after dark, the gates stay open until 9 pm (officially visiting hours are 8 am – 6.30 pm) and this is perhaps the best time to visit! Devoid of another soul, we wandered around the stunning temple that was glowing in the dark and I fell in love with the city all over again!

Beautiful Wat Pho, Bangkok, where we finished our bike ride night tour.

If you’re interested in taking a Night Bike Ride Tour, find out more here!

Nikki Scott - Founder South East Asia Backpacker
Nikki Scott | Founder & Editor

Nikki is the founding editor of South East Asia Backpacker and The Backpacker Network. In her early twenties, she left her home in the North of England on a solo backpacking adventure and never returned! After six months on the road, she founded a print magazine that became legendary on the Banana Pancake Trail. The rest is history.

Find me: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

2 thoughts on “Pad Thai: The Forgotten History of Thailand’s National Dish”

  1. “Pad” is not just ‘to fry’, but specifically “stir-fry” or “sauté”. This is to distinguish it from deep and/or shallow frying, and pan frying, in which the Thai word “thod” is applied instead.

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