This vegan version of Pad Thai, also known as Pad Thai Jay, is inspired by the street food we tried in Thailand during the Phuket Vegetarian Festival. Pad Thai is an iconic Thai stir fried noodle dish in a tamarind based sauce. Along with being one of the national dishes of Thailand, it is also one of the most ubiquitous dishes both domestically and abroad.
Typically Pad Thai is not vegan due to the use of fish sauce (nam pla) and egg, but most places will also make a vegan version known as Pad Thai Jay. In many ways Pad Thai reminds me of the Malay dish Char Kway Teow, a stir fried rice noodle dish in a dark soy sauce. But while Char Kway Teow has more Chinese flavors, Pad Thai is distinctly Thai with a lovely sourness rarely found in Chinese stir-fried noodles.
Pad Thai represents the five flavors of Thai cuisine – salty, sour, sweet, bitter and spicy. It’s usually served with lime, bean sprouts, scallion, crushed peanuts, crushed palm sugar and ground dried chiles to allow you to adjust these flavors according to taste. We really like ours spicy so we roasted some dried Thai chili peppers and ground them into a fine powder.
jay (thai: เจ)
As a vegan in Thailand, the most important word to know in Thai is “Jay” (Thai: เจ) (the word resembles the number 17). Jay is the closest equivalent in Thai culture to vegan and essentially means: No meat, seafood or animal byproducts. Jay will also usually mean no garlic or onion along with certain herbs. Overall though, most importantly, knowing that something is Jay/เจ will assure you that it is also vegan.
Notes about Ingredients
Rice noodles come in a variety of widths, you can use just about any rice noodles but cooking times will vary. Rice noodles are sold dry, usually in 1 lb packs, and may occasionally be labeled “rice stick”. I used 3-mm wide rice noodles for this dish. Generally, the wider the noodle the longer the soaking time. 3-mm rice noodles will need to soak in lukewarm water for 30 minutes until somewhat soft prior to stir-frying your Pad Thai.
Tamarind is a significant ingredient across Thailand, Southeast Asia and Southern India. For Pad Thai, tamarind concentrate provides the lovely sour and sweet base for your sauce. It is typically available in Latin, Indian and Asian markets but you are starting to see it more frequently in natural grocery stores now. Tamarind paste is usually interchangeable with tamarind concentrate, but tamarind paste can sometimes be thicker. You will want a consistency similar to warm molasses. You do not want a tamarind paste with seeds in it. If you have a tamarind paste with seeds, you will need to remove them. You can also make your own tamarind paste. In Thailand tamarind concentrate is occasionally used as a substitute for fish sauce in vegan dishes.
Since we like our Pad Thai with a bit of heat, we added freshly ground dried Thai bird’s eye chilies. Dried Thai chilies can be found in most stores, but other dried spicy chilies will also work. Toast the dried chilies in a pan until lightly charred prior to grinding them into a fine powder. I recommend using a spice or coffee grinder or a mortar and pestle. Be careful when handling and grinding the chilies and always avoid touching your face. The ground chili can be added to the Pad Thai during the cooking process or reserved as a condiment/topping to be served at the table.
In Thailand there is a variety of commonly used extra-firm tofu that is yellow. It is more firm and dense than the tofu you typically find in stores in the United States and also usually has a red Chinese stamp on it when it’s sold in the whole block form. Since it’s virtually impossible to find this type of tofu in the United States, I have written a recipe for pressing, drying and lightly frying extra firm tofu in turmeric to achieve a suitable substitute.
To prepare your yellow tofu you will need to thoroughly dry your extra-firm tofu. I pressed my extra-firm tofu overnight and periodically drained the excess water before patting dry with a towel. Pressing will reduce the moisture in the tofu, making it more dense and firm while also making it easier to fry. For pressing tofu, I highly recommend the TofuXpress.
You can crumble them with your hands or cube them. I like to use kala namak (Indian black salt) in this recipe to provide a sulphuric egg-like flavor to the tofu. Kala namak is available in Indian markets and a number of online retailers including Amazon. If you are unable to find kala namak, don’t worry since it’s optional (but recommended).
This recipe can be prepared gluten-free by substituting gluten-free tamari for soy sauce.
Pat the pressed tofu dry and crumble into chunky pieces with your fingers. You want the tofu to have a similar appearance to the scrambled eggs used in fried rice. Heat the oil and ground turmeric over medium-low heat in a deep skillet. When hot, add crumbled tofu and kala namak. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the tofu is heated through and dried out a bit - approximately 5 to 10 minutes. Remove the tofu from the oil, drain and set aside.
In a very large bowl, soak the dry rice noodles in lukewarm water for about 30 minutes while preparing the remaining ingredients. Place a plate, smaller than the top of the bowl, on top of the noodles to keep them submerged. The noodles should twirl around your fingers easily, but shouldn’t break. Rinse noodles with cool water, then drain again and set aside.
Meanwhile make the tamarind sauce. Combine all tamarind sauce ingredients, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Add extra sugar to taste if the sauce is too tart.
Prepare and place all ingredients for the Pad Thai within reach of your cooktop. Since it is a fast cooking process, you will need to have everything prepped and within reach so nothing burns or sticks to your wok. Heat a very large stir-fry pan or wok over high heat until very hot, about 5 minutes or until temperature reaches 350°F.
Add oil to the hot wok or stir-fry pan. Toss in shallots and cook until tender, stirring, about 2 minutes. Add garlic and ground chilies and cook , toss quickly, about 1-2 minutes. Toss in tomatoes and carrots, cook for about 2 minutes. Continue to stir and toss. Add the tamarind sauce and drained noodles. Cook noodles until tender and some start to appear slightly charred or caramelized, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add bean sprouts, scallions, and ‘yellow tofu' and stir for another 2 minutes. Remove from heat and plate immediately.
Serve hot with crushed peanuts, lime wedges, fresh bean sprouts, long scallion segments and dried chili peppers on the side in small condiment dishes.
Grinding Thai Bird’s-eye chili and peanuts: In a dry skillet over medium heat, toast 3 individual dried chilis until slightly charred on all sides. Let them cool. Using a mortar and pestle or coffee or spice grinder, grind them into a fine powder (you may see some seeds and skin, remove any large pieces). Always handle chili peppers with caution. Transfer to a bowl and set it aside.
When purchasing peanuts, make sure they are roasted and unsalted. Using a mortar and pestle or coffee or spice grinder, grind 3 TB into a chunky consistency.
Rice noodles: They vary in size but the wider the noodle, the longer soaking time. If using 3-mm wide noodles, soak at least 30 minutes. If using less than 3-mm, soak at least 20 minutes. Increase soaking time for rice noodles larger than 3-mm.
Tamarind concentrate: Tamarind concentrate is a bit sweet and thick. It is typically available in Latin, Indian and Asian markets but you are starting to see it more frequently in natural grocery stores. Tamarind paste is usually interchangeable with tamarind concentrate, but tamarind paste can sometimes be thicker. You will want a consistency similar to warm molasses. You do not want a tamarind paste with seeds in it. If you have a tamarind paste with seeds, you will need to remove them. You can also make your own tamarind paste here. FYI, I used this brand, LAXMI natural tamarind concentrate.