Pad Thai is a popular Thai dish made with stir-fried rice noodles, eggs, tofu or shrimp, and a flavourful sauce, but did you know that the Thai goverment once spent $15 million to make it popular.
Unless you’re an aficionado or have had the opportunity to visit, there are a few likely suspects that probably spring to mind when you think about Thai food. Perhaps its Khao Soi, the noodle curry dish which is more often linked to Burmese cuisine. Or maybe Som Tam, the tangy raw papaya salad that plays into all the favourite flavours of the Indian palate. But more likely, it’s Pad Thai, the simple peanut-driven noodle dish that’s won the hearts of diners the world over. But what if we told you, that Pad Thai isn’t even really a true Thai dish at all?
On the occasion of World Pad Thai Day which falls on the 7th of November, let’s put this dish which has become such a cultural icon of Thailand under the microscope and trace the history of how it really came into the spotlight and what made this dish with virtually no cultural history their National Dish.
Video Credits: Joshua Weissman/YouTube
History Of Pad Thai
Usually, when we delve into the roots of Asian dishes, the story starts hundreds or thousands of years ago in an unnamed province or a distant dynasty. In the case of Pad Thai though, we can quite confidently trace its origins back, all the way to the non-so-distant 1940s.
It all began with Plaek Phibunsongkhram – better known as Phibun in the West – a military officer who had played a key role in dethroning Thailand’s monarchy and then rose to power as the Prime Minister. Siam (as Thailand was known then), had not been colonised up until that point, but Phibun was worried that the French and British colonies surrounding them were pressing in and post the removal of the monarchy, the nation’s ethnically diverse population was fragmenting.
As a fix, he passed 12 Cultural Mandates to try and evoke some sort of patriotic feeling – and hopefully cement his position of power at the same time. Some of these mandates, like the one that compelled all citizens to sleep 6-8 hours a day didn’t quite stick. Others, like his decision to change the name of the country to Siam, did.
His fifth mandate revolved around Thai products, specifically, using only Thai products in cooking and wherever else possible. During World War II, there was a shortage of rice in the country, and at the time it was the main food source for most families, usually eaten with chilli paste, herbs and salt, so when the rations ran low, Phibun saw his opportunity for a new nationalistic exercise and ironically, he did so by adapting a Chinese dish.
Pad Thai’s original name was ‘Gway Teow Pad Thai’. ‘Gway Teow’ means rice noodles in Chinese, ‘Pad’ means ‘fried’ and ‘Thai’ meant ‘in Thai style’ and some believe that Chinese traders in Siam made a similar dish in the 1700s. Either way, it took care of the rice shortage as the noodles used 50 per cent less rice to make, were cheap to produce and easy to store. Suddenly Pad Thai was getting promoted in every corner under the slogan “noodle is your lunch” which reminded citizens that eating noodles was a way to help the war effort. The government even started giving people free carts to sell Pad Thai. It was an offer nobody wanted to refuse and suddenly, Pad Thai was a staple of Thai cuisine.
How Pad Thai Became A Global Phenomenon
Now that Pad Thai had firmly established its roots in Thailand, the next step was taking it global and to do that, the government called into play a tactic which has become known as Gastrodiplomacy. Also sometimes referred to as culinary diplomacy, it’s the process in which a country uses food as a baseline to alter international relations, and as it turns out, the Thai government were masters at it.
Back in 2002, they launched the ‘Global Thai’ program to help set up Thai restaurants the world over and foster an exchange of cultures through food. For this, Pad Thai became the poster dish of the campaign, and they spent around 500 million baht ($15 million) positioning it as the national dish.
The initiative worked far better than anyone expected and by 2011 there were more than 10,000 Thai restaurants globally and had become known as The Kitchen of The World. In 2022, Pad Thai even made it to the Oxford English Dictionary as “a dish from Thailand made with a type of noodles made from rice, spices, egg, vegetables and sometimes meat or seafood.”
So that’s how a dish from Thailand, which may not even technically be Thai became the National Dish, all as a result of a rice shortage and a 15 million-dollar cultural exchange program.