When making Pad Thai, a critical step is creating the sauce. You want to balance flavors perfectly between sweet, sour, spicy and salty. If you are like me and enjoy spicy food more than most, you will want to make sure to not go too far with the spice and add later to your liking. It is common in Thailand to have all of these flavors represented in some way as condiments so you can adjust dishes to your liking. Without further ado, here are the key players in our sauce:
The Salt: Fish Sauce
Fish sauce derives its saltiness from the anchovies in it. It is a savory sauce that really adds to the complexity of the Pad Thai.
The Sour: Tamarind Paste
Tamarind paste is made from the pulp of tamarind fruit. It is an acidic fruit that adds a sweet-sour component to our sauce.
The Sweet: Sugar
Unfortunately, the tamarind is not sweet enough to provide true balance to the sauce. For that, we need to add sugar until the balance is just right.
The Heat: Red Chili Flakes
The heat in this sauce comes from chili flakes. I actually don’t add these in at this stage, as I like to fry the flakes slightly in oil when making the sauce to help release their flavor. I generally only add about 1 tbsp of flakes when cooking, as that seems to be the amount other people like. Remember – you can always add more to your individual plate at the table.
Making the sauce
The key to the entire process is balance, and tasting as you go to get the proportions right. To start, measure out about 3 tbsp fish sauce, 3 tbsp tamarind, and 2 tbsp sugar. Mix well and you should have a slightly viscous sauce. Now taste, adding whichever flavor you feel is lacking in your sauce, then mix and taste again until it is balanced to your liking. You should end up with a sauce like this:
The great thing about this process is everyone has different tastes, but you can account for them here. It also helps refine your pallet to figure out how to balance different flavors against each other, particularly in a sauce like this with so few ingredients where each provides such strong flavors.