Pad thai [whole-food, plant-based, oil-free, gluten-free, sugar-free]

What is pad thai?

Pad Thai
Plant-based Pad Thai with tofu and vegetables.

Pad thai is a dish of stir-fried rice noodles. The dish originally comes from Thailand. It is usually made with vegetables, eggs, and tofu. One of the most important ingredients of pad thai is also the sauce, which is usually made out of tamarind pulp, fish and/or shrimp sauce, onions, garlic, chili, and palm sugar. It is usually served with chopped roasted peanuts and a wedge of lime. So this dish is actually pretty close to being plant-based but in the recent times of affluence, there have been more and more animal proteins finding their way into Pad Thai. If we decide to omit the animal protein, oil, and sugar, we are faced with these three challenges:

  • How to make tofu taste any good?
  • How to stir-fry without using oil?
  • How to make the sweet sauce without using sugar or fish sauce?

We will answer all that and it will be pretty easy! So let’s start at the beginning.

How to make tofu taste good?

Dried out tofu in the Pad Thai sauce.

You have probably already heard that tofu has no flavor. And it is true, natural tofu has a really bland flavor. It is really funny how people expect it to have some flavor without adding any spices. All the meat products contain large amounts of salt and other spices, and you expect poor tofu to taste good in and of itself? The best thing I found you can do with tofu is to marinate it or to coat it. And we are going to do both. But first, we have to dry it out so it will be able to take in all of that marinade goodness. Some people will tell you to press it, some people will tell you to pat it dry, but I hate doing these things. I just cut it into cubes, throw it in a pan on medium-low heat and forget about it for about 10 minutes. In the meantime, we will prepare the marinade and just stir tofu a couple of times, so it doesn’t burn on one side.

Tip #1: Pan-dry the tofu instead of pressing.

How to stir-fry without using oil?

How to cook without oil?
Easy instructions on how to cook without oil.

We have already covered this topic in-depth in this article on How to cook without using oil. We know that the vegetables aren’t a problem because of their high water content, but for tofu, you might need to use a nonstick pan. I have also done it with a regular pan, putting the tofu in when the pan was already hot and there was minimal sticking. Just don’t stir it too early or too much. I will also give you one of my most precious tips here as the other thing about cooking with oil is that it gives your food moisture. You see, water evaporates but oil doesn’t. So the best trick I have invented is to use tapioca starch to thicken the water so it doesn’t evaporate. And it also provides a bit of greasy feel to it because it has a really special consistency.

Tip #2: Use tapioca starch for greassy look and feel.

How to make a plant-based Pad Thai sauce?

Dates for sweetness, tamarind for acidity and soy sauce for saltiness.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, a Pad Thai sauce is usually made with tamarind pulp, fish and/or shrimp sauce, onions, garlic, chili, and palm sugar. So the first ingredient, the tamarind pulp is already whole-food, plant-based. Tamarind is actually a fruit and it gives the sauce its acidity. We will replace the fish and shrimp with soy sauce. You can also use tamari for a gluten-free version and for lower sodium content. Onions, garlic, and chili are all plants, so everything is fine there. And now we come to the palm sugar. I am going to tell you about my sweetener of choice, which is also considered a whole-food and is very healthy. It is considered one of the healthiest options when it comes to sweeteners, followed closely by maple syrup which is way too expensive for my taste. Just as a fun fact, agave syrup is considered one of the most unhealthy sweeteners, being no better than table sugar. Dates also add to the thickness so they are perfect for this sauce. And don’t worry if you don’t like dates, their flavor is unnoticeable.

Tip #3: Use dates for sweetness.

A word on the rice noodles

Noodles are considered to be a whole-food when they are made out of whole grains. For Pad Thai, the rice noodles have to be at least 5mm wide. At least that is how I feel. So don’t use glass rice noodles or vermicelli, and try to find wider, brown rice noodles.

Vegetables

Carrot noodles made with a peeler.

You can use any vegetables you like. I just use whatever I find in my fridge, but I always use carrots. Especially I like those noodle-like carrots that complement the rice noodles so well. I make the carrot noodles by peeling the carrot until there isn’t any carrot left to peel, ha-ha. This is actually one of my favorite ways to have carrots.

Tip #4: Cut carrots with a peeler.

Recipe (quantities feed 2 people)

Ingredients

  • 2 servings of wide brown rice noodles (about 100g)
  • 1 package of tofu (normal or firm type, not silken)

For the sauce

  • 1/3 cup of dried dates
  • 2 tablespoons of soy sauce or tamarind for gluten-free
  • 1 tablespoon of tamarind pulp
  • 1 teaspoon onion and garlic powder, each
  • 1 teaspoon tapioca starch* (optional)
  • chili pepper* (optional)
  • salt to taste

For the toppings

  • chopped roasted peanuts
  • spring onions

Vegetables I used

  • 1 large carrot
  • green beans
  • red bell pepper

Instructions

Cut the tofu into cubes. Put in in a pan over medium-low heat and stir occasionally. Cook it dry for about 10 minutes. We want it to dry out.

Pour a cup of boiling water over tamarind and mash it with a fork. Let it sit for about 5 minutes then put it through a sieve. Discard the pulp.

Making of the tamarind sauce.

Pour a cup of boiling water over the dates and blend them until you get a smooth paste.

Mix together the water from tamarind, the date paste, and all the other sauce ingredients into one bowl. Transfer the cooked and dried tofu into this bowl and let it marinate while you prepare vegetables and noodles.

Prepare the rice noodles according to instructions on the packaging. You want them just a little bit undercooked. Rinse them and leave them in cold water, so they don’t stick.

Chop any vegetables you like and stir fry them (using the instructions on how to cook without oil).

Make sure you don’t overcook the vegetables, you want them to get brown but stay crisp. You can do that by using high heat.

Stir fry the vegetables and cook the noodles.

Add the tofu with the sauce. Stir well and cook a few minutes until it starts to get thick.

Then add the cooked rice noodles and cook for just a minute, so the noodles heat up and absorb the sauce. Mix well so the noodles get coated with sauce, but make sure it doesn’t dry out.

Top with chopped peanuts and spring onions or toppings of your choice.

Tip #4: Chop peanuts in a pestle or just hammer the bag in which they came in.
I like to eat my Pad Thai using chopsticks.

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