Earlier, I dealt with one of the comments relating (vaguely) to last week's review of Bai Tong. This week's Ask the Critic inspiration comes from the same place and concerns a question (more of an accusation, really) about my statement that "pad Thai isn't even Thai food; it's as American as chop suey and California rolls, an entrée precisely calibrated to make use of Thai ingredients as they intersect with the American palate, its love of sweetness, stickiness, and cheap, carnival-midway thrills."
American as apple pie, chop suey and California rolls
I took a good amount of flack for that one. The kindest of the queries/comments was from Aaron who wrote:
"Pad Thai is as American as chop suey? Pad Thai has been eaten in Thailand for centuries as is one of the country's most popular street foods. Yes, most Seattle Thai restaurants make a ketchupy, overly sweet version but that doesn't change the fact that you don't know what you're talking about. You try really hard to sound cool but you are annoying and you have your facts wrong."
Au contraire, Aaron. I try really hard to come off as handsome, thin, funny and smarter than you. The cool just comes naturally...
As for the pad Thai question, I would be willing to admit that a dish similar to what we know today as pad Thai has been eaten in Thailand for quite some time, but most people who know a little something about the way food travels would tell you that the dish you're thinking of is a derivative form of banh pho xao sate--a Vietnamese noodle dish brought to Thailand by Vietnamese traders a long, long time ago, made with Chinese ingredients, and popularized in the bustling (and multi-ethnic) capital of Ayuthaya. The Thai version of pad Thai is a sort of absorption of this dish into the Thai canon, with local cooks altering it to the particular tastes of Thai people--making it drier, lighter and more broadly balanced in terms of salty, sweet and savory flavors. Also, not for nothing, but I believe the more traditional versions of this dish include the tiny dried shrimp which are popular ingredients in many authentic Thai dishes. I challenge you to find me a single Thai restaurant in the area that make pad Thai this way.
As for pad Thai being a popular Thai street food? You're right, Aaron. It is. But popularity does not equal authenticity or national possession. In Korea, fans of street food eat pasta primavera served in a waffle cone, but that doesn't make spaghetti, primavera or waffle cones authentic Korean delicacies. And then there's that Hooter's franchise in Beijing...
Not quite the traditional cuisine of Korea
Finally, I will admit that pad Thai is often referred to as the "national dish of Thailand." But if I had to guess, I'd say that the people of Thailand? They didn't have a lot to do with the choice of this dish. It had more to do with Prime Minister Luang Pibulsonggram who, during WWII, promoted the dish as a way to cut down on rice consumption. In addition to encouraging Western dress and a consolidation of the language, Pibulsonggram started a massive educational program that would train people to make rice noodles and operate noodle shops and hawker stands. The one dish he wanted them all to serve? Pad Thai, in a more or less standardized form.
The pad Thai most often served in Seattle (and the rest of the United States) is an even further alteration of the centuries-old Viet-Chinese-Thai fusion--one which plays on the American love of all things gooey, squishy and sweet. It is missing the pickled cabbage, Chinese leeks, dried shrimp and tamarind juice of the original, adopted Thai dish, often leaves out the fish sauce entirely, and is served instead as a simple and candy-sweet stir-fry of noodles, peanuts, sprouts, egg and protein--a vaguely recognizable ancestor of the centuries-old dish, perhaps, but hardly the same thing.
So, to make a very long answer short, Aaron? You're right. Pad Thai is totally a Thai dish and I obviously have no idea what I'm talking about.
(For those of you looking for an exhaustive definition of what is and isn't pad Thai, a semantics discussion about the proper spelling of the name, and also some information on various regional preparations of the dish, you should check out this link. Yeah, it's to a Thai restaurant in Austin, but the article about pad Thai is excellent.)