Christchurch takeaway chicken pad thai dishes struggle to match expectations of the bright, zingy, fresh, full-flavoured cuisine of Thailand. Ewan Sargent reports.
Pad thai is to Thailand as butter chicken is to India and chicken fried rice is to China.
It's an easy way to access the country's cuisine. It's a dish that's accessible and can be made family friendly.
The main ingredients are cheap, it offers an exotic flavour, but it's not too exotic. It is probably a good money earner with a decent profit margin.
Pad thai may have international fame, but in Thailand it is essentially street food and that's where most locals buy it.
The street vendors have their take on what goes in. They bash it out, fast and full of flavour, in a routine honed through years of practice.
There's no set recipe, although general consensus is that it should represent the beautifully-balanced salty, sweet, sour flavours of Thailand. So you'd expect a touch of tamarind, palm sugar and fish sauce in there, or some Westernised equivalent. The fourth flavour is spicy heat from chilli, and there was precious little of that in my takeaways.
The one constant is flat fried noodles. Squashing them in a plastic pot to steam as they are taken home does not help. Other typical ingredients include bean sprouts and chopped peanuts for texture, and egg.
After testing six pad thai takeaways in Christchurch over two different nights, the overall feeling was: A takeaway with a workmanlike approach rather than excitement.
Some takeaways varied so widely that it was hard to imagine they were the same dish.
Red Chilli Thai in Dallington, for example, offered up a dish that had broccoli and carrots and cabbage in it. And I quite liked it.
289 Wairakei Rd
This dish was swimming in sauce which had sweet tomato flavouring. It looked very appealing before the ponding underneath was discovered. Carrot and broccoli appeared among the expected egg, beans, chicken - and lots of peanuts. It was generous with fillings. But that sauce disappointed.
9 Humphreys Rd
Thai Talay out at Ferrymead did the noodles well, but the dish was dominated by them with a layer of chicken lost underneath. This made sense when it was overturned to be served. It was a pale offering with bean sprouts on top. Egg and peanuts were folded lightly in the mix, plus a few strands of spring onion. The sauce had the tomato touch I was beginning to dread. It felt very safe and bland.
74 Riccarton Rd
A tomato sauce flavour crept into the dish, which the kids liked (but I didn't). A few wisps of coriander were sprinkled on top. Peanuts were lost in the sauce. It had plenty of chicken. Overall it was safe but didn't feel particularly Thai.
RED CHILLI THAI TAKEAWAY
695 Gloucester St
They took the phone order for chicken pad thai, but the menu only lists Chicken and Thai Noodles, so that's what I must have got. This leaned more to a Chinese stirfry with plenty of broccoli florets, carrot and celery in among dark sauce- coated noodles. There was plenty of chicken; no lemon wedge and no bean sprouts. The earthy soy-influenced sauce had plenty of flavour.
30 Yaldhurst Rd
A lighter-coloured dish with lots of chopped peanuts, bean sprouts, egg and a sauce that had a touch of sour and sweet. This had wider flat noodles and the approach was a little drier, which was appealing.
SEMA'S THAI CUISINE
74 Edgeware Rd
A scattering of (currently expensive) coriander leaves on top was a good sign. They didn't add much taste but the will to be authentic was there. The noodles were tasty and well- seasoned.
There was a whisper of pleasing sourness, plenty of tender chicken, chopped peanuts, bean sprouts and a wedge of lemon for dressing. The best pad thai of the tasting.
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