It was 16:00 on Maha Chai Road in Bangkok’s Old City. And although Thipsamai Pad Thai didn’t open for another hour, the queue for it was already snaking down the street. Sixty minutes in the stifling heat of Thailand’s capital, it seems, is a small price to pay for the chance to taste an original version of Thailand’s most famous dish: a sweet and spicy egg-wrapped combination of noodles, prawns and prawn-oil sauce.
Narrowly avoiding being hit by a tuk tuk full of tourists as I stepped out of my taxi, I guiltily negotiated my way to the front of the line to see if the owner, Sikarachat Baisamut, had arrived. In hindsight, given the almost military levels of precision with which he runs his restaurant, I shouldn’t have been surprised that he was right on time and ready to launch straight into his tale.
It all started during World War II, he began, as we took our seats inside. Due to the high cost of rice production, Prime Minister Phibunsongkhram decided to encourage the Thai people to eat noodles and other local ingredients by creating not only a national dish, kway teow pad Thai (Thai-style stir-fried rice noodles) but even the noodles that went into it (sen Chan, named after Thailand’s Chanthaburi province). The dish’s exact contents depended on regional availability of ingredients, but generally included some combination of radish, beansprouts, peanuts, dried shrimp and egg, seasoned with palm sugar and chillies.
Over time, the dish’s name was shortened to ‘pad Thai’, and Baisamut’s grandmother started selling her version of it from a boat on Phasi Charoen Canal in Samut Sakhon Province, just west of Bangkok, with help from her daughter – Baisamut’s mother – Samai.
The recipe was passed down from mother to daughter, and when Samai later moved to Bangkok, she opened one of the capital’s first pad Thai stalls with one small charcoal stove and a handful of old tables, which, according to Samai, was declared by Phibunsongkhram himself to sell the authentic version of his beloved national dish. Sales soared, the stall became a bricks-and-mortar restaurant, and today under Baisamut’s leadership (he took over in 2012), Thipsamai Pad Thai is unrecognisable from the simple road-side operation of the 1950s – apart from one very important element.
“Our mission is to preserve the original pad Thai recipe that my mother and grandmother cooked, using only the highest quality ingredients and the original cooking technique,” Baisamut told me, pressing a paper cup of iced coconut – a cool complement to the pad Thai’s tang, I was later to discover – into my hand.
Nowadays, pad Thais tend to be a stir-fried mixture of rice noodles, prawns, tofu, garlic and egg, flavoured with fish sauce, chillies and palm sugar and served with lime, coriander, beansprouts and peanuts. Thipsamai’s original or ‘superb’ version as it’s called on the menu, though, has three special, signature ingredients: sen Chan noodles, the longer, softer and more tender the better; the family’s secret prawn-oil recipe, made from fat from the heads of river and deep-sea prawns combined with Thai spices and organic herbs; and an egg-wrap so thin that customers get a sneak peek of the unique concoction inside.
Nothing is allowed into the dish until Baisamut has verified its quality, a process that usually involves several visits to the supplier, as well as switching suppliers on a seasonal basis. It was the prawns – pink, plump and juicy – that caught my eye; they’re delivered fresh daily from fishing ports in a range of coastal provinces, I was assured.
Leading me out to the kitchen, which remains on the roadside, a nod to Thipsamai’s street-food roots, Baisamut informed me that the family’s original pad Thai must be cooked on a searing hot charcoal stove, fired with wood from mangrove trees sourced from a distant province that can’t be harvested until they’re at least 12 years old. The size of the wood chunks is equally important (they must be of arm’s length) – and the fact that the high-quality iron woks need to be replaced every two weeks due to the intense heat of the charcoal-fired flames is a necessary sacrifice to preserve his grandmother’s original cooking technique.
Baisamut has also maintained the rigorous training regime he remembers from his childhood.
“When I was a little boy, my mother asked me if I wanted to be the owner of the restaurant one day, and I said ‘yes, of course!’. She told me that I needed to know how to do everything from scratch. First I had to clean the toilets, then I could step up to be a waiter and eventually I was allowed to cook pad Thai with our original prawn-oil recipe.”
Thipsamai’s five-strong team of chefs have been spared loo-cleaning duties, but they did have to undertake a seven-step training programme before they were let loose on the restaurant’s signature dish.
Step one – cleaning and waiting tables – is followed by preparing the noodles, both getting used to the heat in front of the charcoal stove and understanding the correct noodle texture. The third phase consists of transferring the pad Thai from the pan to the plate, before it’s time to learn about all the other ingredients that go into the dish – from bean sprouts to chives to tofu – and how to prepare them.
Step five – the egg-wrapping – is the trickiest. Chefs must practise for more than three months to reach the point where they can wrap four pad Thais with one layer of egg in the space of 30 seconds. Only after that do they progress to cooking the basic version of pad Thai, which Thipsamai also serves, and finally the ‘superb’ prawn oil recipe that goes inside the egg wrap.