The original, Marathi version of this article appeared in Loksatta on September 1, 2012 and can be read here.
In the swanky, heavily air conditioned suburban office where I took up my first job ever as an associate editor, two foods constantly poured out of the hole-in-the-wall pantry—ginger tea and Maggi. It was what helped us survive the long working hours and the chill of the air conditioning. The two helpers in the pantry were constantly rinsing huge black ceramic mugs and pouring freshly brewed, strong, spicy ginger tea in them. And there was always a huge pot of water on the stove to make Maggi noodles. From 7 in the morning, when the early birds walked in to way past midnight when we sat biting nails to meet deadlines, bowlfuls of hot noodles appeared on messy, paper-strewn desks and offered nourishment (if not to the body) at least to the frazzled soul.
Ganesh, the cook-cum-waiter-cum-peon-cum-general cheer-giver, had a fantastic recipe for these instant noodles—he would boil the noodles with a bunch of carrots and peas and then spike them up with finely chopped green chilies, a special masala, some ketchup, and strips of slightly overdone omelet. A generous pachaak of tomato ketchup sealed the deal. The bowl would arrive to our tables as it bellowed its spicy vapors against a backdrop of edits and cleared the sinuses. So many years later, I still crave for instant noodles made that way.
I am sure every family has a standard favorite noodle recipe. But with time, our exposure to noodles has stretched beyond the Chinese thhela walah’s greasy, haldi-tinged Hakka noodles and the instant, 2-minute variety to noodles made from rice and buckwheat, to noodles in a hot pot. Thin, transparent glass noodles that get stuffed in rice paper rolls, silky Japanese Udon noodles that go beautifully in a stir fry or in a soupy broth. Fancy oriental restaurants serve noodles in blue Chinese ceramic ware and bamboo steamers. No more the clumpy maida noodles served sloppily in white, plastic bowls with bits of burnt garlic and greasy spring onion greens. We have taught ourselves to use chopsticks and eat “properly.” We have learned the art of telling the restaurant not to add any ajinomoto to our noodles and we turn up our noses if the plate shows a streak of oil once we’re done eating. And yet, we will always have a special place in our hearts for the hot, greasy Triple Schezwan drenched in food coloring that the college canteen dished out, and we will always want to grab a stool at the roadside Chinese thhela to get our share of Chow Mein on a cold, rainy day.
I love Pad Thai—a classic Thai dish, this is made from flat rice noodles and the characteristic flavors are that of fermented shrimp paste, peanuts, and tamarind, and they are typically sweet, sour and spicy all at once. You could add chicken, fresh prawns, or veggies according to your choice. It’s the perfect dish for a cold rainy evening or an impromptu party with friends. You could make the paste beforehand and store in the refrigerator for up to a fortnight. I have done a vegetarian version of the Pad That here; if you’re a non-vegetarian, throw in a couple of prawns or chicken and egg and add a little dried shrimp powder or fermented shrimp paste when sautéing. A dash of fish sauce will also impart a great and authentic Thai flavor.
Ingredients for Pad Thai paste:
- ½ cup tamarind paste
- ¼ cup brown sugar
- 3 tbsp. red chili paste
- 2 tbsp. dark soy sauce
- 1 tbsp. fish sauce
- Salt to taste
- ¼ cup water
For the Noodles:
- 500 gms. rice noodles
- ½ cup mushrooms, sliced
- ½ cup broccoli florets
- ½ cup carrots, sliced
- ½ cup bean sprouts
- A small handful of peanuts, coarsely ground
- ¼ cup firm tofu, cubed
- 1 tsp. dried shrimp powder/fermented shrimp paste
- Salt to taste
- 3-4 cloves of garlic, chopped
- ½ inch piece of ginger, julienne
- 3 spring onions, sliced
- 3 tbsp. peanut oil
- 1 handful of fresh coriander, chopped
- To make the Pad Thai paste, simply place all the ingredients in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down and simmer for 8-10 minutes or until reduced. Taste to adjust seasoning. Cool and decant into a dry jar and store in the refrigerator until ready for use.
- For half an hour before you want to make the dish, soak the noodles in a bowl of hot water until soft. Drain.
- Heat the peanut oil in a wok. Add the ginger, garlic, and white of the spring onions and sauté for a minute.
- Add the vegetables except the bean sprouts and stir fry until slightly cooked.
- Now, throw in the noodles and add about 3 tbsp. of the Pad Thai paste and salt. Toss and check for seasoning, adding more paste if required.
- Turn off the heat and stir in the bean sprouts and spring onion greens.
- To serve, put some hot noodles in a bowl, top with peanut powder and chopped cilantro.