“I haven’t made Thai food in a long time,” says Fern Tran as she fries eggs and cubes of seasoned chicken breast in an oil-slicked wok.
Tran moved to the States in 1995 from Isan in northern Thailand, and she spends most of her time making elevated versions of pan-Asian classics in the kitchen at The Florence, where she is a chef and partner. She adds a few tongfuls of rubbery rice noodles. “Always the same—oil, egg, protein, noodle. See how they don’t stick?”
Rice noodles were introduced to Thailand by Vietnamese and Chinese immigrants, and they are now essential ingredients in many classic Thai dishes, like Pad Thai, Tom Yum soup (which can also be served over rice or on its own), and Pad Kee Mao (drunken noodles), the very dish she was in the process of making.
“Drunken noodles got their name after a long night of drinking, because you are hungry, and either you or the street food vendors can take whatever is on hand and throw it together for a quick, hearty meal. But it has to be spicy,” Tran winks, adding a ladle of dark liquid.
“The combination of soy and dark soy is like a Thai mother sauce,” she says. “The dark soy is thick, salty, and a little sweet. It adds great umami, but you can’t use much of it because it is so rich. You have to cut it with regular soy. This is the basic sauce for Pad Kee Mao. Add some palm sugar and tamarind paste and you have the basic sauce for Pad Thai. There is no substitute for dark soy.”
She tosses in a few broccoli florets, slivers of carrot, and chopped cabbage. “You can use any kind of vegetable or protein, there is no rule.” She deftly plates the steaming noodles, topping them with a few sprigs of Thai basil, fried garlic, and some hot chiles. “That’s it. Done.”
The entire wok-frying process takes less than 10 minutes.
“I have to admit, when I crave Thai, I usually go to my friend’s restaurant Sabai Sabai in Oceanside. So when I started thinking about sharing classic rice noodle recipes, I called her for help,” she laughs. “It was good. It reminded me how easy our food is to make. Anyone can do it, and it doesn’t take a lot of time, but you do need to have the right ingredients.”
San Diego County is spoiled with Asian grocery stores, where it is easy to stock up on pantry staples like oyster sauce, nam prik pao (Thai roasted chile paste), palm sugar, and rice noodles. We even have locally grown galangal available at the Chino Family Farm Vegetable Shop and ethically sourced proteins from the likes of Tuna Harbor Dockside Market, Catalina Offshore Products, Da-Le Ranch, and Three Sons Farm. And any of the dishes can be made vegetarian by swapping in more veggies or tofu and using mushroom-based fish and oyster sauces.
With a few Thai pantry staples on hand, and a little time spent chopping, homestyle Thai noodle dishes take less time to make than ordering takeout.