Pad kee mao–the fabulously spicy “drunken” noodles found at every Thai restaurant–is one of my favorite noodle dishes. It’s spicy as all get-up and bursting with flavor, with the one-of-a-kind herbaceous kick of Thai basil. Nobody really knows why the noodles are “drunken,” but my favorite theory is that they’re so hot they need to be accompanied by lots of cool beer.
Of course, making them at home gives you the flexibility to adjust the heat to your liking. I do this by leaving the chilies whole to tone things down, or chopping them to dial the heat back up. In the dish pictured, I used two whole chilies and two halved with the seeds removed. It came out plenty hot.
Traditionally, this dish should be made with ground or chopped meat or poultry (not sliced, like in many restaurants), which gets some texture into every bite and gives the dish a wonderful juiciness to accompany the basil and chilies.
Thai basil is a must and Italian basil does not work. Get it at most Asian markets, like those on our Chinatown shopping tour, and use it within three or four days.
- Cook the rice noodles according to the package instructions. Some rice noodles are boiled, and others are simply soaked in hot water. Cook until they are not quite done, since they will cook again when stir-fried. Drain them and rinse them under cold water to stop the cooking. Set aside.
- Meanwhile, prep the chilies to taste. Leave them whole if you want the flavor with less heat. Chop one or more, or simply cut one or more in half, to dial it up. Removing seeds from the cut chilies tones it back down. This dish can be made very, very hot if you want.
- Prep the other ingredients. Slice or coarsely chop the garlic. Slice the cherry tomatoes into quarters. Measure out the sugar into a small bowl and crack some black pepper into it. In another small bowl, mix the fish sauce and soy sauce. Measure out the basil leaves.
- Get all the ingredients and a serving dish ready and standing by the stove--things will happen quickly once the heat goes on.
- Heat a wok or large, deep skillet over medium-high heat. When it is very hot, add the oil and the chilies. After 30 seconds, add the garlic. Stir-fry the garlic and chilies for another 30 seconds and then add the ground meat or poultry. Stir-fry until the meat is browned, breaking it up with a spatula, about 1-2 minutes.
- Add the sugar mixture and toss quickly to mix. Then add the fish sauce mixture and continue to stir-fry as the sauce thickens, about 1 minute. Add the noodles and toss them gently in the wok, letting them soften as they absorb the sauce, about 1 minute. Add a touch more oil if things start to stick. Add most of the basil, reserving a few leaves for garnish, and continue turning the noodles gently as the basil begins to wilt. Add the tomatoes, give everything a spin, and turn off the heat.
- Transfer the noodles to a serving platter and garnish with the remaining basil leaves. Serve immediately with some water, beer, and a box of tissues.