If I could eat only one cuisine for the rest of my life, I’m pretty sure it would be Thai food. The salty-tart-spicy-sweet flavors are so satisfying and there are so many vegetarian options that I would never get bored. Recently, instead of going out for Thai, I’ve been making it at home and with great success – it often comes out better than what you can get at most Thai restaurants (not including the amazing Sripraphai).
Ingredients like black soy sauce, Thai basil, and Kaffir lime leaves give Thai food its distinctive flavor. Although they're not easy to find in this neighborhood, they're all available at the wonderful Bangkok Center Grocery, which is just a few stops away on the F train in Chinatown.
With the right ingredients in hand, I’ve found that Thai food is incredibly easy to make. A can of good curry paste (Mae Sri is one of the only brands that the Bangkok Center Grocery stocks and for good reason – it’s excellent), coconut milk, and fresh veggies transform into pot full of green curry in under 30 minutes. Rice noodles, chilis, a few sauces, and Thai basil come together in 20 minutes for an intoxicating bowl of drunken noodles. Papaya salad is a snap (provided you can find long beans and green papayas).
One of the advantages of making Thai food at home (aside from the obvious – it’s way cheaper than eating out) is that I can be assured that it’s completely vegetarian. Many Thai dishes contain fish sauce, and while many restaurants are accommodating of vegetarians, you can’t ever really be sure that what you’re eating is totally fish sauce-free. The problem with omitting fish sauce from recipes, however, is that you’re losing that important sourness that it contributes. I’ve found that a healthy dose of lime juice and a splash of soy sauce work just fine as a substitute.
Drunken Noodles (Pad Kee Mao)
(from Raspberry Eggplant)
vegan and gluten-free
7-8 oz dried square or wide rice noodles
1 large red or green bell pepper
10-15 oz tofu or seitan
2 tablespoons canola or peanut oil
4-8 thai bird chilies (use 4 for moderately spicy and up to 8 for super spicy)
3 large garlic cloves
¼ cup black soy sauce
¼ cup soy sauce
¼ cup freshly squeezed lime juice
10-15 grape or cherry tomatoes
½ cup loosely packed holy basil or Thai basil leaves
Bring a 4 quart pot of water to a boil, add the rice noodles, and cook 1 minute less than package directions (usually about 5-6 minutes) – make sure not to overcook the noodles. Drain the noodles, then return them to the pot and fill with cool water (this prevents the noodles from sticking together).
In the meantime, core and seed the pepper and cut it into ½” thick strips. Cut the tofu or seitan into large chunks. [If using tofu, you can cook it in the microwave oven for 5 minutes, stirring and draining the liquid halfway through, or you can just use it as is.] Stem and seed the chilies. Finely chop the chilies and the garlic and set aside.
In a small bowl, whisk together the black soy sauce, soy sauce, and lime juice.
Heat the oil in a large wide skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering (but not smoking). Add the chilies and garlic and cook for 45 seconds, stirring frequently to prevent burning. Pour in the soy sauce mixture and cook for 1 minute to thicken. Add the tofu or seitan and peppers and stir well to coat all the pieces. Cover the skillet and cook until the peppers have softened but still are a little crisp, about 4 minutes.
In the meantime, slice each grape tomato in half and set aside.
When the peppers are softened, drain the noodles and add them to the skillet. Add the halved tomatoes and toss well to coat all the noodles. Cook for 1 minute for the noodles to absorb the sauce.
Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the basil leaves. Serve immediately.