Vegetarian Pad Thai with Fishless "Fish" Sauce

I love it when a recipe challenges and teaches me a few new tricks. This vegetarian Pad Thai sparked an entire post about fishless fish sauce, in which I set out to investigate the commercial fish sauce substitutes available in my local Asian supermarket and put three vegan fish sauce recipes to the test at home. Click here to read the results and find the vegetarian fish sauce to make this all-time favorite Thai noodle dish.  

There are a few things we can learn from this recipe found in the brilliant vegetarian cookbook Good Veg by Alice Hart. Most important of them is that whether you call yourself vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian, or lessmeatarian, meatless cooking poses more delicious opportunities than you realise. This book is filled with ideas highlighting flavor profiles from all over the world, including to my delight many recipes inspired by Asia and Southeast Asia.

The key for satisfying vegetarian cooking, writes Hart in the introduction, is in contrast. "This is most evident in East Asian recipes, where the balance of hot versus cool, crisp versus soft, sweet versus sour, chile heat versus refreshing herb, is all." 

This vegetarian Pad Thai recipe is a good case study. Salty, sweet, spicy, and tangy flavors all find their way into the dish, contributed by the fruity tartness of tamarind paste and the salty pungency of an umami-rich fishless fish sauce. You can find tamarind paste from the Asian store but I prefer to make my own with tamarind pulp and I've written a step-by-step guide here

As for the vegetarian fish sauce, my experimentation has shown that making your own is a fun and rewarding project. You can do that the night before or a few days ahead as it keeps well in the refrigerator and the flavors actually develop with time too. I have a few recipes for you to choose from here

Textures and mouthfeel are just as important in this dish. Flat rice noodles, sometimes also known as rice sticks, are used in making Pad Thai and you will find them available in different sizes at the Asian grocery stores, sometimes labeled in clothing sizes from "S" to "XL" depending on the width of the noodles. I'd say about 5mm in width (size "L" in this case) is best for getting the right chewiness to balance the other ingredients. 

Contrasting the soft chewiness of the rice noodles are crunchy peanuts, pillowy tofu and eggs (omit to make this dish vegan), and the crispness of just-cooked bean sprouts. With such intense flavors and all these amazing textures, it can feel a lot like a party in the mouth!

Now, I'd like to tell you about one vital ingredient that makes or breaks a Pad Thai for me: preserved radish. I don't need the meat ingredients for achieving authentic Pad Thai but preserved radish makes all the difference for me. Salty-sweet, mildly sour, and slightly crunchy, it's that subtle oomph that's missing from so many restaurant Pad Thais I've tried here. 

Preserved radish is exactly what its name suggests, Chinese radish that's been salted, preserved or pickled. They come in whole pieces, cut into long strips (as pictured above), and finely chopped. This recipe calls for them to be chopped and you can either buy them already chopped or do it yourself with the large pieces or strips. The preserved radish I've had in Southeast Asia tends to be sweeter but I've only ever come across the salty kind in the Asian grocery stores here, which can be used with no problem after a quick rinse and squeeze. 

Having said that, I'm not a recipe puritan. If I don't think fish sauce should prevent anyone from having a good Pad Thai, then I also don't believe that you should be deterred from making it if you can't find preserved radish. Hey, I'm sure I'd be condemned by Thai food purists for using green onions in place of Chinese chives! Yes, I do know that Chinese chives make better Pad Thai but I haven't had any luck finding them here and wasn't going to let that stop me from cooking one of my favorite Thai noodle dishes. But if you can find them, use them in this recipe!

Another lesson to learn here is this: the wise thing to do when making a stir-fry is to have all the ingredients on hand because once the heat is on, it's just go, go, go. 

Hart has intentionally kept this recipe to a small serving of two with good reason. "Overfilling a wok causes the contents to steam and simmer rather than fry, making any stir-fry soggy," she wrote in the headnotes. "Successful Pad Thai is made in small quantities."

Taste as you cook is another thing that this recipe encourages. Don't be a slave to a recipe and don't be afraid to have preferences. Add more sugar if you need to balance out the tartness. Use more or less of the sauce depending on how strong you want the flavors to be. It's up to you!

You will find that to be the theme throughout this book, which really is an invitation to celebrate fresh produce, eat more vegetables, and try something new in the kitchen, whatever your dietary leanings are. As Hart wrote, "Thoughtful eating—by which I mean healthy with a dose of common sense—shouldn't be tricky and needn't be patronizing." 

I'd like to give you a chance to win a copy of Good Veg by Alice Hart. I know you'll love it! All you have to do is leave me a comment below and tell me what's the most valuable lesson you've learned about vegetarian or meatless cooking. Scroll down to the bottom of the post for further instructions. 

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Vegetarian Pad Thai with Fishless "Fish" Sauce
Adapted from Good Veg by Alice Hart. Prepare all the ingredients before you fire up the heat, especially the tamarind paste and vegetarian fish sauce if you're making your own. A wok is ideal for stir-frying noodles but if you don't have one, a large frying pan with enough depth for you to toss the ingredients around will also work. This recipe serves 2. 

3.5 ounces (100g) flat rice noodles
1/3 cup (40g) unsalted peanuts
1/4 cup (60g) tamarind paste*
1/4 cup (60 ml) vegetarian fish sauce*
1 to 2 tablespoons coconut sugar or brown sugar, to taste
1/2 teaspoon hot chili powder
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
6 ounces (160g or 1/2 a pack) extra firm tofu, cut into 2-inch cubes
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
2 medium eggs, optional (omit to make it vegan)
1 heaping tablespoon chopped, preserved radish, optional
1 cup (100g) bean sprouts
2 tablespoons chopped Chinese/garlic chives or green onions
Lime wedges, to serve

Start by preparing the ingredients and have them on hand. Soak the rice noodles in lukewarm water for 20 minutes. Drain thoroughly and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 375° F, spread the peanuts on a baking sheet and roast for 6 to 7 minutes, shaking the tray halfway through, until golden. Allow to cool and crush or chop them quite finely. Transfer to a bowl and set aside. 

In a small saucepan, gently heat the tamarind paste, vegetarian fish sauce, and 1 tablespoon of the sugar with 1 tablespoon of water for 5 minutes. Then add the chili powder. Taste and stir in the remaining sugar if you want it to be sweeter. You'll want a good balance of salty, sour, sweet, and hot. Transfer to a bowl and set aside. 

In a wok or large frying pan, heat up 2 tablespoons of the oil over high heat. Add the tofu and stir-fry for a minute. Add the garlic and stir-fry for another minute. Add half the tamarind sauce and the noodles and stir-fry until the noodles start to soften, adding a splash of water if they stick. Taste and add some or all of the remaining sauce, as needed. 

Push the noodles to the side of the wok or frying pan and add the remaining oil. Crack the eggs in, if using, and stir to scramble until cooked. Then mix in the noodles, and add half the peanuts, the preserved radish, bean sprouts, and Chinese chives or green onions at the same time. Toss everything together until the bean sprouts lose their raw look and start to soften. 

Transfer to serving plates and serve immediately with the remaining peanuts on top and lime wedges on the side to squeeze over. 

· For a step-by-step guide on how to make tamarind paste, click here.
· For the fishless "fish" sauce recipe, click here

Good Veg by Alice Hart Giveaway
I am giving away one copy of Good Veg by Alice Hart. To enter, leave me a comment below and tell me what's the most valuable lesson you've learned about vegetarian or meatless cooking.

  • This giveaway is open from 12th to 30th June, 2017 at 11.59PM PST 
  • It is open to residents of the US and Canada with a valid address in the US and Canada only
  • One winner will be selected and notified by email (please enter valid email address)

UPDATE: This giveaway has ended. Congratulations to Sophie!


DISCLOSURE: This book was sent to me by The Experiment. All words and opinions are my own, and I only recommend products and brands that I trust. Thank you for your support!