Rice Noodles: ============= You can use fresh or dried, in widths from 1/8 to 1/2 inch wide. I've never tried fresh. The dried ones have to be soaked in water to soften them. The recipes call for soaking in cold water, lukewarm water, hot water, and boiling water for anywhere from 7 minutes to 2 hours. I put mine into warm tap water and let them soak while I'm preparing everything else. Just before I start cooking, I dump them into a colander to drain. One recipe suggests cellophane noodles as an alternative to rice noodles - I've never tried that variation.
Meat or No Meat: ================ The most common meat called for is shrimp, with chicken and/or pork use in addition to or in place of the shrimp. Some recipes add bean curd; some substitute it for the meat. Jeff Smith's recipe uses deep fried bean curd. My own variation is to substitute various veggies (asparagus, red bell pepper, broccoli, snow peas, or whatever else looks good.) As Nancie McDermott says, "Thai cooks blithely tinker with the classic formula to create signature variations, and you can, too."
Oil and Seasonings: =================== Cooking pad thai starts with vegetable or peanut oil. Most versions add garlic, and sometimes shallots, shrimp paste (be prepared for the smell!), onions, fresh red chilies, and/or preserved sweet white radish.
The Sauce: ========== What makes pad thai, in addition to the rice noodles, is the sauce. The general mix of flavors is sweet, salty, sour, and hot. Typical ingredients are:
~~ fish sauce (sometimes soy sauce is used in addition, or in place of for pure vegetarian versions) ~~ sugar (sometimes palm sugar is suggested) ~~ vinegar (various kinds specified; tamarind sauce or lime juice are sometimes used instead) ~~ "red stuff" ~- may be paprika, tomato paste, catsup, chili powder, hot chili sauce, chili paste with garlic, tomato sauce, or cayenne pepper, depending on the recipe. ~~ Other possible additions: salt, black pepper, chicken stock, dried shrimp powder. One recipe calls for boiling the sauce before using.
Eggs: ===== Anywhere from 0-6. Some recipes call for beating the eggs before adding; others suggested breaking the yolk after adding the egg to the pan. Various techniques are suggested for manipulating the egg while cooking. One recipe calls for cooking the egg before starting the pad thai, cutting it into strips, and then adding the egg strips back at the end of cooking. I haven't tried this myself but have had it in restaurants.
Bean Sprouts and Scallions: ========================== These are usually added last in cooking, or added to the finished dish without cooking.
Garnishes: ========= Various things can be added to finished dish as an edible garnish:
~~ lime or lemon wedges ~~ ground roasted chilies ~~ ground roasted peanuts ~~ dried red chili flakes ~~ fresh coriander leaves ~~ cucumber slices ~~ dried shrimps ~~ fried basil leaves ~~ cherry tomatoes ~~ mint sprigs
Experiment, and enjoy!