Mark Bittman’s Pad Thai: Disaster

Last week, Mark Bittman posted a recipe at the New York Times for Pad Thai, called “Pad Thai Doesn’t Have to Be Takeout.” It was supposed to make a complex dish sound easy, and to some extent it succeeded — and it made me very, very hungry for Pad Thai.  I love Pad Thai, and anything that would make it an easier meal at home would probably save me dozens of dollars.

So last night, C and I set out to make it.  We bought all the necessary ingredients — the only thing I had on hand was rice vinegar, eggs, garlic, and peanut oil — between Trader Joe’s and Market of Choice: tamarind paste, fish sauce, honey, scallions, napa cabbage, tofu, and cilantro.  I have a hatred of bean sprouts, so they didn’t make the cut; we also compromised on a half-head of napa cabbage, since C’s enthusiasm for it wasn’t high.

C was in charge of the sauce, while I worked on the noodles and generally making a mess of chopping things (scallions, for instance).  When he got the 1/4 cup of tamarind paste from its little jar, we were both a little surprised at its thickness — sort of like boiled, dark honey.  “I might add a little less,” he said, and I agreed that sounded like a good idea.

Skip to the end: The result was awful.  C choked down about 2/3 of a dish; I gave up after three bites.  It was terribly bitter and tangy — just overwhelmed by the tamarind.  The sauce wasn’t the pretty light brown in the Bittman picture, but instead a thick, dark brown, like you might see in Chinese dishes — except, of course, Chinese dishes taste good.

At first, we thought the culprit was our tamarind paste — the container said “tamarind paste concentrate” on the front, so we thought, OK, maybe we shouldn’t have bought the concentrate, or should have used less.  On further investigation, though, the Internet says that “Tamarind concentrate, also called tamarind paste, is a pure concentrate of tamarind,” so I don’t think it was us.

I think it was Bittman.  Here’s my proof:

New York Times recipe from last week contains:

4 ounces fettuccine-width rice stick noodles

1/4 cup peanut oil

1/4 cup tamarind paste

1/4 cup fish sauce (nam pla)

1/3 cup honey

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or to taste

1/4 cup chopped scallions

1 garlic clove, minced

2 eggs

1 small head Napa cabbage, shredded (about 4 cups)

1 cup mung bean sprouts

1/2 pound peeled shrimp, pressed tofu or a combination

1/2 cup roasted peanuts, chopped

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

2 limes, quartered.

Bittman’s original recipe in How to Cook Everything:

12 ounces dried flat rice noodles, 1/4 inch thick

5 tablespoons peanut or neutral oil, like grapeseed or corn

3 eggs, lightly beaten

4 garlic cloves, minced

4 ounces small shrimp, peeled

4 ounces pressed tofu, or extra-firm tofu, blotted dry, sliced

2 scallions, cut into 1-inch lengths

1 cup bean sprouts, rinsed and trimmed

2 tablespoons nam pla (Thai fish sauce)

2 teaspoons tamarind paste or ketchup

2 teaspoons sugar

1/4 cup chopped peanuts

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves

2 small fresh green chiles, preferably Thai, seeded and sliced (optional)

1 lime, cut into wedges

The tamarind has more than doubled for a recipe using 1/3 as many noodles! Either something has happened to break Mark Bittman’s tastebuds, or there’s a serious typo in the new recipe that’s gone uncorrected despite being one of the top ten most e-mailed articles for the last four days. Or, alternate to all of that, we messed up the recipe in some secret way that I have yet to discover.

We saved the leftovers, and will experiment with diluting it tonight or tomorrow.  I would like to make Pad Thai at home.  Just — not this Pad Thai.

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22 Responses to Mark Bittman’s Pad Thai: Disaster

  1. Kristen says:

    I have a very good recipe in another cookbook.

  2. Lisa says:

    Wow. I just about spit out my drink (yes, it is early) with the first list of ingredient. 1/4 fish sauce is well, yuck as is that much tamarind. And way too much lime. Not enough noodles. Not to mention you have to soften the noodles forever first.

    You are a brave brave woman trying that recipe! I will make anything but Thai or Indian. Too many good take-out places here. And too much chopping and specialty ingredients.

    Wonder how the NYT screwed it up? Food Network does that all the time with Tyler Florence recipes….

    • Jenn says:

      It does seem excessive, doesn’t it? But in proportion to the rest of it, it looked OK… until we actually tasted it. Bleh.

      There’s not a correction as far as I can so far see, so — I don’t know what to think.

  3. Darcy says:

    I also have a tasty recipe from a cookbook called Mom’s Best One Pot Meals — kind of a weird source for a Pad Thai recipe! It doesn’t have any tamarind paste, but it has almost everything else in your list. I don’t know the traditional ingredients for Pad Thai, but this one has a little molasses in it for a darker sweet taste.

    We’ve been attempting Noodles copycat recipes lately. We haven’t made it to their Pad Thai, but it is on our list. I hope it is as good as the one at the restaurant! Good luck with your Pad Thai!

  4. Darcy says:

    I google them. I found loose descriptions of Pasta Fresca and Pesto Cavatappi by former employees. Those turned out great. I also found a written recipe for Japanese Pan Noodles. Those were ok, but next time I will get thick udon noodles.

  5. Alison says:

    Considering that you left out over half the veggies–half the cabbage and no bean sprouts, I’m not surprised you didn’t like this.
    I did, but I increased the amount of rice noodles because I thought 4 oz would not be enough for three of us. I used about 10 oz. rice noodles, but left everything else the same. We liked it immensely–with the 3 T of tamarind paste/concentrate–and I made it again last night.

    • Jenn says:

      I’m totally willing to admit there may be some user error here! Glad to hear it worked for you; gives me hope for the future.

  6. Brian says:

    I tried making the how to cook everything version today (just got the iphone app) and it came out more like chow fun than pad thai. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t pad thai. I recommend Pim’s recipe instead: link. I’ve made it before and it came out well (and tasted like pad thai).

  7. Meg says:

    Thank you for this – I made the recipe last night after craving Pad Thai for a couple of weeks and it was a similar disaster. Way too few noodles, way too much sauce. I ate a little of it after I added more noodles, but I think I’m going to have to toss out the leftovers and try another version – I found an Alton Brown one last night when looking up the recipe itself… he won’t steer me wrong, will he?

    • Jenn says:

      Fingers crossed for Alton Brown!

      The leftovers here seemed to be a bit milder on the second and third days, luckily, or I think they would have met the same fate.

  8. James says:

    Thank you! I normally love Mark Bittman and have been saving this recipe for weeks. I made it tonight and it was awful – bitter, acidic, and way too much sauce. I thought it was just me, but it’s great to know that the recipe isn’t correct. Maybe when my taste buds recover, I’ll give the actual version a try.

  9. Marvin says:

    I tried the NYT recipe last night; unfortunately, before I had read your blog. Even though I doubled the quantity of noodles, the two TB of tamarind I put in ruined the dish by making it horribly sour. Also, the recipe did not call for sufficient spice nor garlic. And the napa cabbage made it too wet. All in all, a horrible recipe.

  10. milseanbeag says:

    I made this and it was wonderful. I followed his recipe exactly except that I only had tamarind in a block on hand. I cut about 2 teaspoons of the tamarind and dissolved in 1/4 cup of boiling water. The end result was lovely, just like Pad Thai I’ve had at restaurants.

  11. thatswede says:

    Thanks for solving the mystery of the uneatable Pad Thai. I don’t know too much about this Bittman dude, but the proportions seems to be quite off in the NY Times recipe. Perhaps an editorial error, who knows. The second one recipe, presented here in this blog, work much better – resulting in an exquisite Pad Thai. I excluded the Rice vinegar altogether the second time around, but do I dare adding some the third time? I’m not sure if my poor taste buds can handle another debacle like the first one.

    • David says:

      I know I’m late on this, but I wanted to add that I’ve noticed some inconsistencies between his recipes and the recipes in his actual cookbook – another instance being the arepas, which come out MUCH better based on the recipe in HTCE Vegetarian as opposed to the online recipe. Not sure why he feels the need to switch up the recipe, but if you have the books (as I do), I’d go with the published material.

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  13. Stacy says:

    I am way late on posting this but I just had to. I have made this recipe dozens of times. Each time I make it I have adjusted measurements of various ingredients but each time I am very pleased with the result. I think the flavor of his pad thai is identical to that of a thai restaurant. Perhaps it is the fact that I am able to monitor all the ingredients that I put in to the dish makes me love making it at home even more. You really never know what goes in to your food at a restaurant and that makes me feel uneasy. Try it again, use the whole head of cabbage this time, it cooks down so much you won’t even be able to tell. It will soak up the sauce that your 1/2 head of cabbage was unable to. Also, there is a paste vs the tamarind concentrate. It’s thicker in its concistency and milder in its flavor.

  14. Monica says:

    Tamarind paste and tamarind paste concentrate are not the same. Tamarind paste is the pulp of tamarind fruit-minus the seed. Concentrate is a cooked down product, more like molasses. They can be substituted but not in equal quantities.

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