Pad Thai goes vegetarian! Crispy pan-seared tofu is your protein, and salt takes the place of fish sauce for a vegetarian spin on this favorite takeout dish.
Pad Thai is a classic dish for either take-out or dine-in at Thai restaurants. Luckily, for home cooks, there’s no big mystery to what makes a good pad Thai—there’s a little bit of prep ahead of time, but it’s not hard to pull off at home. Woo hoo!
This vegetarian version uses a block of extra firm tofu and swaps in salt for the fish sauce.
What is Pad Thai?
Pad Thai is a noodle-based dish that you’ll often find served with some permutation of chopped peanuts, bean sprouts, scallions, and sometimes carrots, cilantro and/or a wedge of lime. It’s often served with tofu, shrimp, or chicken.
The sauce is key with pad Thai. It’s what makes pad Thai what it is, as opposed to some other stir-fry noodle dish. There’s a specific balance of flavors that occurs when you combine sugar, rice vinegar, fish sauce, and tamarind (a sweet-sour fruit that gets added here either as a concentrate or a pulp; see below for more information). Those are the ingredients that go into this pad Thai sauce.
How to Make Pad Thai Vegetarian—and Vegan
In Thailand, it’s not uncommon to see this dish with tofu. However, the dish is not strictly vegetarian until you remove the fish sauce.
According to Chef Peter, with whom I worked on these pad Thai recipes, all you need to replicate the element of fish sauce is salt.
It won’t offer the same depth of flavor that fish sauce will, but the salt will help balance the rest of the flavors and mimic some of the salty taste you get from fish sauce. When I told him I saw some vegetarian recipes for pad Thai online that involved soaking dried mushrooms and making some kind of broth to mimic the umami taste of fish sauce, he simply said, “Please do not do that.” I intuited that it was both an unnecessary step and perhaps a bit offensive to pad Thai to make it that way.
Making this dish vegan is easy—all you need to do is remove the eggs!
A NOTE ABOUT TAMARIND
We’ve focused on tamarind concentrate for this recipe, as it’s more widely available. It gets whisked in with the other sauce ingredients really easily, no prep work needed.
If you buy tamarind pulp instead of concentrate, take it out of the package, put it in a bowl with warm to hot water (enough to cover, about 3 to 4 cups) and let it soak for 30 minutes. Break up the pulp with your hands to separate the large seeds and fibrous parts. Run the remainder of the pulp through a fine mesh sieve and right into a bowl, scraping the underside of the sieve to remove any pulp that may have gotten stuck.
You should have about 1/2 cup of pulp—it will be velvety and look like apple butter. You use all of it, and use it the same way in the sauce as you would the concentrate—it will yield more sauce, and one that is slightly thicker/less watery.
Tips on Cooking with Tofu
Here are a few things to know that will help tofu cook optimally.
- Tofu is packaged in a bit of liquid. Dump the liquid out, put the tofu block on a cutting board, and wrap it with a kitchen towel or a doubled-up layer of paper towels.
- Using your hands, gently press out some of the extra liquid into the towel. This will ensure that the tofu is as dry as possible when you put it in a hot pan, which means it will brown nicely and get a little crispy on the outside. You can leave it wrapped in a towel while you set about prepping the other ingredients.
- Once the tofu feels like it’s released as much water as it’s going to—it will still be damp—slice it vertically into strips about 1/2-inch to an inch wide—and then cut those strips into smaller chunks of about the same size so they cook evenly. There’s no right or wrong here—just try to be as symmetrical as you can.
- Blot the tofu again after cutting, if needed, with paper towels or another kitchen towel.
What kind of noodles work best for pad Thai?
Rice noodles about the width of fettuccine are typically what you’ll find in pad Thai. You can find rice noodles in the international aisle in the grocery store or Asian grocers in nondescript plastic bags that may or may not contain cooking instructions in a language you may or may not understand. Truth! (Here are the noodles that I prefer for pad Thai.)
There’s one thing that makes such a difference with pad Thai: the process of soaking the noodles ahead of time in cold water. You can do this the night before or in the morning on the day you’re going to cook pad Thai.
It will be so much easier to cook the noodles because they’ve softened a little bit. They will also be boiled very quickly, right before they are incorporated into the other ingredients in the hot pan.
Break Up the Cooking for Best Results
This recipe works best if you break it into two batches—otherwise, there’s just too much food in the pan, and it makes it hard to cook everything evenly. Besides, in restaurants (and in food carts in Thailand), pad Thai is typically prepared to order, one serving at a time. There’s a lot of wisdom to that.
ADDING MORE VEGETABLES
Although I love adding more vegetables when I can to a dish, a traditional vegetarian pad Thai doesn’t typically load you up on vegetables. However, Chef Peter says you can add your favorites, if you like.
Toss in some snow peas, some shredded cabbage, or whatever else you like—those will be good to go in toward the end of cooking, because they’ll soften quickly. Anything else that’s thicker or harder, such as carrots, broccoli, asparagus, or green beans, you’ll need to add those earlier in the process—after the tofu, but before the eggs. Just push the veggies to the side of the pan when you add the eggs. It’ll fit.
PAD THAI MAKES GREAT LEFTOVERS!
In the process of developing pad Thai recipes, I learned that Pad Thai keeps well for four to five days and reheats beautifully in the microwave. (Sometimes I like to add a little bit of extra sauce.)
I was initially skeptical of using the microwave for noodles, but this direction came straight from the Thai chef from whom I adapted this recipe. As you might imagine, pad Thai does not really freeze well. However, if you and yours like this recipe, you won’t have a surplus!