“Whenever we try Thai food,” chef and Thailand native Nick Srisawat tells Gastronomica,“ we try pad thai first because that is a way to judge how good a restaurant is.” It’s become a staple in Bangkok and is loved across the world, but the story of its inception is one you might not know.
Back in 1938, a man named Phibunsongkhram, better known as Phibun in the West, had just played a prominent role as a military officer in a coup that dethroned Thailand’s monarchy and, after rising through the ranks of government, became Prime Minister (dictator).
Despite being the centre of power in Thailand, Phibun was worried. Siam - as Thailand was then known - had never been colonised but was surrounded by the French and British. Siam was also an ethnically diverse country with strong regional identities, and with the removal of the monarchy, there was little to hold these disparate groups together.
So, in an effort to forge a true national identity and - more importantly - cement his power, Phibun decided to transform the country’s culture and identity. From 1939 to 1942, Phibun passed 12 Cultural Mandates that would - hopefully - encourage the Siamese people to be productive, well-mannered, and proud of their country.
Phibun’s mandates were incredibly nationalistic, and like a lot of modern-day legislation, were aimed to curb foreign influence within Siam. Some of his mandates - like his desire for everyone to wear hats in public - have faded into the fog of history. But his decision to change the name of the country to Thailand has stuck, and his ability to forge a true national identity has lived on. But what has this got to do with pad thai I hear you ask? Patience, we’re getting to that.
Before Phibun, pad thai didn’t’ exist. In fact, most Thai people ate rice with chilli paste, leaves, and salt and bought lunch and snacks from Chinese food vendors. But during world war II, Thailand suffered a shortage of rice, and Phibun used this shortage as a nationalistic propaganda opportunity. Thus pad thai was born, ironically from a dish with Chinese origins. The original name for Pad Thai, was ‘Gway Teow Pad Thai.’ Gway Teow’ is a Chinese word for rice noodles, while ‘Pad’ means fried and ‘Thai’ means in Thai style. Some people believe that a similar creation to Pad Thai was brought to Siam by Chinese traders in the 1700s.
Phibun’s son told Gastronomica that his family cooked pad thai before his father made it the national dish of Thailand, but is unsure who invented it. Others say there was a national competition held and pad thai won. What everyone does agree on is that the dish was used to protect Thailand’s rice resources. Noodles are cheap and economical to produce and could be dried and kept for long periods of time. The amount of rice used to make noodles was 50% of what would be consumed if it was eaten unprocessed, so noodles essentially doubled Thailand’s rice stores.
Married with Phibuns mandates, pad thai was promoted heavily up and down the country under the campaign slogan “noodle is your lunch”. The propaganda led menu change told the Thai people they were “helping the war effort” and “supporting your country” all while reducing the influence of non-Thai within the country. The Public Welfare Department gave out recipes to restaurants and even gave free food carts to people to sell pad thai in the streets, all while quietly banning foreign nationals from selling their wares.
But it worked. The Thai people adopted pad thai and started eating it regularly. Phibun’s push to unite the Thai people under his nationalist agenda worked and the Thai nation started to become the country Australians regularly visit today.
So next time you order pad thai from your local Thai, remember it was the delicious brainchild of a dictator.
Oh and Phibun? The vocal fan of Mussolini and the man who forged an alliance with Japan during World War II? After numerous coups where he lost and then regained power, he was forced into exile in Japan in 1957 and lived there till his death in 1964.