One of the most popular Thai dishes is authentic pad thai with shrimp, chicken, or tofu. The real way to make this classic noodle dish is with tamarind, not lime juice and definitely not peanut butter. This recipe is easy, delicious, and super fast!
(This recipe was originally published in September 2013, but was updated with new photos and content in 2020)
Pad thai recipes are plentiful, and yet they are not all created the equal. Authentic pad thai noodles are quick and easy to make, but the authenticity of the ingredients is pretty important in my opinion.
There are spots where you can take shortcuts or use substitutions, but there are others where you really shouldn’t waver.
Ingredients for authentic pad thai
Case in point: tamarind. I discuss this key ingredient at length in my recipe for tamarind margaritas. In the past I tried making a non-traditional version using lime juice in place of the tamarind. It’s not the same. You really need tamarind to replicate the true flavor of authentic pad thai. It gives the noodles that tangy-sour bite that makes it so unique compared to other noodle dishes.
Don’t even get me started on peanut butter. I have seen several recipes for “pad thai” that use this ingredient, and I just can’t. There is no place in pad thai for peanut butter. The chopped peanuts go on top as a garnish. That’s it. That should be the only inclusion of peanuts here. I’ve said my piece.
Authentic pad thai recipes also use palm sugar as the sugar component. If you have palm sugar, definitely use it. Palm sugar is sold in cakes and needs to be chopped up or grated in order to use it here. With that said, packed brown sugar is an excellent and readily available substitute (unlike my disdain for lime juice and peanut butter in this recipe).
You also need dried rice noodles (or rice sticks) to make this recipe. This is also pretty commonly available in supermarkets these days, but you’ll likely find a bigger variety at better prices in Asian markets. Aim to get medium-width noodles for this recipe.
Fish sauce is another component in this recipe that is extremely authentic to the classic recipe. Yes, it’s kind of stinky, but it is definitely the way to go if you are not making this recipe the authentic way. If you need to replace it, you can try a vegan fish sauce, coconut aminos, or a combination of soy sauce and vinegar, although the flavor will be slightly different in each case.
Mung bean sprouts provide a great bit of crunch to the texture of this pad thai. Definitely don’t skip them. You can find them sold in bags in well-stocked supermarkets, and sometimes sold loose in boxes at Asian markets (where you can weigh and buy as much as you need). Plan to purchase your bean sprouts right before you need to use them. They don’t stay fresh for very long. If you need to store them for a few days in the refrigerator, this is how I recommend you do it.
Line the bottom of a container with a paper towel and layer bean sprouts in small layers with paper towels in between (like a lasagna). Cover with another paper towel on top but don’t cover with an air-tight lid.
Only rinse your bean sprouts in cold water when you are ready to use them. The cold water will help refresh the sprouts. I have read about freezing bean sprouts but I have never had luck doing it myself. I can’t stress this enough, but I definitely recommend buying your bean sprouts within 1 to 2 days at the most before you want to use them to avoid limp and sad-looking sprouts.
What to do with leftover bean sprouts? Toss them in some fried rice or a stir-fry! They are pretty versatile and add a great crunch!
Additional notes on purchasing tamarind
Let’s dive in a little further into the different types of tamarind so you know the right kind to use for authentic pad thai. You can purchase tamarind puree concentrate (this is a Thai brand) or tamarind paste concentrate (this is an Indian brand) in bottles or jars. While tamarind puree may be more like applesauce in texture, tamarind paste is extremely thick and pitch black.
For the purpose of making authentic pad thai you definitely want to use the Thai style of puree versus the thick black Indian tamarind paste. There are various brands of tamarind puree which vary a bit in levels of acidity, but they should all work equally well.
Alternative options for proteins
This recipe for pad thai uses shrimp or prawns. Peel the shrimp leaving the tails on, and devein them. You can do this step in advance especially if you plan to cook this on a weeknight, although it shouldn’t take too long to peel and devein about half a pound of shrimp.
You can easily make chicken pad thai by replacing the shrimp with a thinly sliced chicken breast. Cook the chicken breast first, then remove it from the wok, continue with the recipe as directed, and add the cooked chicken back when you add the bean sprouts. You can also make this recipe with leftover cooked chicken!
Tofu is another popular option for pad thai. Just cube it up and cook it in a little oil as you would with the chicken as described above. Remove it from the pan and continue with the remaining steps, adding it back later with the bean sprouts. If you are making this dish vegetarian or vegan, omit the eggs and use a substitution for the fish sauce.
How to make it
This authentic pad thai with shrimp comes together very quickly. Once you've prepped only a few ingredients, the stir-frying portion of the dish takes less than 10 minutes. It's a perfect weeknight meal, and can easily fulfill your Thai craving faster than getting delivery.
First, add the rice noodles to a pot of boiling water and cook for about 3 minutes. The noodles should be firmer than al dente, as they will continue to cook in the wok. Drain the noodles, run cold water over them to stop the cooking process, and then give them a good snip with a set of kitchen shears.
Meanwhile make the pad thai sauce. Combine the tamarind, sugar, and fish sauce in a small bowl until the sugar dissolves.
Heat up a little oil in a wok. If you have a nonstick wok, you can get away with using less oil than you otherwise would require. Once the oil is hot and begins to shimmer, add minced or crushed garlic and stir-fry for barely a minute. You don’t want it to burn.
Add the drained noodles and give them a quick toss with the garlic (PHOTO 1). They may have stuck together a little but they will loosen up when you add the sauce. Add the sauce and keep stir-frying until the noodles are nicely coated (PHOTO 2).
Add the shrimp and continue to toss the mixture until the shrimp have begun turning pink (PHOTO 3). They will continue to cook so it’s ok if they aren’t fully cooked yet.
Push the noodles and shrimp to one side of the wok and add beaten eggs to the empty space in the wok (PHOTO 4).
Let the eggs begin to set, and then start stirring to scramble them (PHOTO 5). Toss them with the noodles and shrimp.
Next, add the bean sprouts and stir-fry for another minute or two just until they are starting to soften slightly but are still fairly crisp (PHOTOS 6-7). Add half your sliced scallions, give the noodles a final toss and remove from the heat (PHOTO 8).
Divide the pad thai evenly over two plates and garnish with the remaining scallions, chopped peanuts, and lime wedges. Serve immediately. Enjoy!
Other recipes you may like
- Authentic Thai Pineapple Fried Rice with Shrimp
- Tom Yum Gai (Thai Hot and Sour Chicken Soup)
- Pomegranate Sriracha Shrimp
- Beef Teriyaki Udon
- Japchae (Korean Sweet Potato Noodles with Meat and Vegetables)
- Chicken and Thai Basil Dumplings
- Home-style Chicken Kebat
- Tamarind Margaritas
Have you ever tried making homemade authentic pad thai yourself? What is your favorite protein to use? Although I gravitate toward shrimp, I like to mix it up and add chicken sometimes! If you try this recipe, don’t forget to leave me a comment below letting me know what you think. Thanks!
Authentic Pad Thai with Shrimp
- 4 ounces dried rice stick noodles (medium width)
- 2 tablespoons tamarind concentrate
- 2 tablespoons packed light brown sugar (or 3 tablespoons packed grated palm sugar)
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 1 to 2 tablespoons vegetable oil or as needed
- 4 cloves garlic minced or crushed
- 12 to 14 (about 9 to 10 ounces) large shrimp thawed if frozen, peeled with tails left on, and deveined
- 2 eggs beaten
- 2 cups (4 ½ to 5 ounces) mung bean sprouts
- 2 scallions thinly sliced
- ¼ cup roughly chopped peanuts (pulsing in a small food processor/chopper works great)
- Lime wedges for serving
- Add the rice noodles to a pot of boiling water, lower the heat and boil for 3 minutes. The noodles should be softened but still firmer than al dente. They will continue to cook later. Drain and rinse well with cold water. Use kitchen shears to snip the noodles once in half. This will make it a lot easier to fry and eat them.
- To make the sauce, stir together the tamarind, brown sugar, and fish sauce until smooth.
- Heat a wok over high heat and add about 1 to 2 tablespoons oil (if you’re using a non-stick wok you won’t need a lot). Once the oil begins to shimmer, add the garlic and stir-fry for no longer than a minute (as it tends to burn).
- Add the drained noodles and stir for a few seconds. Add the sauce and keep tossing the noodles until they begin to absorb some of the sauce and continue to soften (I use a non-stick wok, but if yours starts to stick, you can add more oil as needed). Add the shrimp and keep stirring until they begin to turn pink, a couple more minutes.
- Push the noodles and shrimp to one side (the shrimp will continue to cook so don’t worry if they aren’t completely pink yet) and pour the beaten eggs into the empty space in the wok. Allow the eggs to set for a minute and then stir to scramble it with the rest of the ingredients.
- Add the bean sprouts and stir-fry for another minute or two until they are crisp-tender and the noodles have a nice chewy texture. Add half the scallions, toss one final time and remove from the heat.
- Divide the Pad Thai evenly over two plates, distributing the shrimp evenly. Garnish with the remaining scallions, chopped peanuts, and lime wedges. Serve immediately.
- Do not double this recipe. If you intend to feed a larger group, stir-fry the pad thai in batches. Attempting to double it in one batch becomes unwieldy and very difficult to properly stir-fry.
- You can purchase tamarind puree concentrate online, in well-stocked supermarkets, and in Asian markets. Purchase a Thai or Vietnamese brand as opposed to an Indian brand in order to have the right texture and flavor balance for this recipe.
- If you need to replace the fish sauce for dietary reasons, you can try a vegan fish sauce, coconut aminos, or a combination of soy sauce and vinegar, although the flavor will be slightly different in each case.
- You can easily make chicken pad thai by replacing the shrimp with a thinly sliced chicken breast. Cook the chicken breast first, then remove it from the wok, continue with the recipe as directed, and add the cooked chicken back when you add the bean sprouts. You can also make this recipe with leftover cooked chicken!
- To make this with tofu, simply cube it up and cook it in a little oil as you would with the chicken as described above. Remove it from the pan and continue with the remaining steps, adding it back later with the bean sprouts. If you are making this dish vegetarian or vegan, omit the eggs and use a substitution for the fish sauce.