Drunken Noodles (Pad Kee Mao)

Noodles, particularly rice udon and egg, have taken over my kitchen, and my diet, as of late. It began with an attempt to re-create some of the dishes from our favourite Thai place, mainly Pad Thai and these Drunken Noodles (Pad Kee Mao); then I moved on to cold sesame Sichuan skinny egg noodles inspired by the memory of a fantastic trip to an authentic Sichuan restaurant in Montreal over a decade ago, at least, it seemed authentic to me at the time, given that, up until that point in my life, my frame of reference for Chinese food was a chicken ball combo plate; and finally, for times when I was not in the mood for spicy, Japanese inspired miso udon noodle dishes. The evenings that I have found myself lying on the couch watching a good show with a bowl of saucy noodles perched on my chest have been many.

Just as a side note, there is something about mentioning TV watching in the context of food writing that strikes me as amusingly, if not somewhat embarrassingly, unsophisticated. If the daily activities described in much popular food writing were any indication, I should be spending my afternoons stepping outside onto cobblestone streets to explore some medieval European city, or driving a pastel bicycle along a dirt road flanked by fields of wildflowers with a basket of fresh produce flung over the handlebars, or reminiscing about that summer I spent in some seaside town in the mediterranean, soaking in the foodways of the locals. But no, in my real-life downtime I am lying on the couch slurping noodles while watching prison break on Netflix. I'm just going to own it. It is the “golden age” of television, as they say, and saucy spicy noodles are everything.

At the risk of putting a damper on the excitement that should surround these drunken noodles (Pad Kee Mao), I want to segue into a few thoughts related to their sodium content*. On the one hand, this is a relatively healthy dish. Thai food, like many Asian cuisines, is primarily plant-based. The ingredients are whole-foods or minimally processed and contain none of the "bad fats". On the other hand, anything that contains even the smallest amount of soy sauce and/or fish sauce is relatively high in sodium. 

As a general rule, I try not to focus too much on individual nutrients, or "good" and "bad" foods (you know, like I am doing right now). However, a recent post from Marion Nestle's blog about the sodium content of restaurant food has stuck with me and left me more vigilant about my sodium intake than I otherwise am. The infographic she references from a VOX article really needs to be seen to be believed. It features a number of commonly ordered selections from popular (American) restaurant chains, and measures their sodium content against a McDonalds small fry. For instance, they claim that TGI Friday's pecan-crusted chicken salad contains an amount of sodium equivalent to 12 1/2 orders of small McDonalds fries. Twelve and a half! 

This must be a deliberately deceptive move on the part of the restaurant industry. That sodium is in there because it is an easy, and cheap, way to make food taste better so that people will buy more of it. But surely those in the restaurant industry, and those who regulate it, know that the average customer probably has no idea that it is even possible for a salad to contain so much salt; that if they are choosing to eat at a restaurant, and not a fast food joint, they expect the food to be relatively healthier; that if they are choosing a salad, they believe they are making a healthy choice. This hidden salt (to say nothing of added sugars) is just one of many examples of how our food environment works against people's best efforts to make good food choices - a topic I intend to write about at length elsewhere.

In any case, the takeaway here should be to proceed with caution when eating at restaurants, not to cut salt out of your diet entirely - especially if that would mean missing out on these drunken noodles. Most of the salt that we consume comes from processed and ultra-processed foods, fast food, and restaurant meals, not our salt shakers. Brazil's recent groundbreaking food guide contains some of the best advice, in my opinion, for eating a healthy diet. Among other things it suggests that we cook as much as we can, from scratch, at home. If we do that, sodium intake should take care of itself.

*Although nutritional science is relevant to my work on the cultural politics of food, I am not a nutritionist. My knowledge of what is healthy, nutritionally, is partial and approached and interpreted through a social science perspective and skill set.

Drunken Noodles (Pad Kee Mao)

Serves: 3-4

Two bowls of drunken noodles (pad kee mao) with a small bowl of peanuts and two water glasses

Ingredients:
    Sauce
  • ¼ cup low sodium soy sauce
  • ¼ cup fish sauce
  • 1/3 cup white sugar
  • 1 tablespoon sesame oil

  • Noodles
  • 225 grams Thai rice noodles,
  • 4 birds-eye chilies, very finely chopped
  • 6 cloves garlic, finely diced
  • ½ red bell pepper, cut into strips
  • ¼ large eggplant, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
  • 2 baby bok choy, sliced into strips, washed and dried
  • 1 small roma tomato, chopped
  • ½ cup holy or Thai basil*, roughly chopped

  • 2 scallions, finely chopped
  • 1/3 cup peanuts, roughly chopped

Instructions:
  1. PREPARE NOODLES: Fill a large bowl with very hot water, soak the noodles until they begin to soften, but are still too hard to eat, they will continue to cook in the wok or skillet.**
  2. In a large skillet or cast iron, heat a thin layer of oil over medium-high heat. Add garlic and thai chilies and sauté until they begin to brown, 1-2 minutes.
  3. Add tomato, bell pepper and eggplant and sauté, stirring frequently, until the eggplant softens and browns, about 5 minutes (add a bit of the sauce if the vegetables begin to burn before they cook).
  4. PREPARE SAUCE: Meanwhile, wisk together soy sauce, fish sauce, white sugar, and sesmae oil in a small bowl. Set aside.
  5. Add the noodles. Pour enough sauce over the noodles to coat. Cook until noodles are just about at your desired texture, stirring constantly
  6. Add the bok choy and basil, stirring for another minute, until they begin to wilt
  7. Remove skillet from the heat, transfer the noodles into bowls, and top with chopped peanuts and scallions. Serve immediately.

* Italian Basil will work too, but won't taste the same. Holy basil is worth tracking down, if at all possible. 

** This may be obvious to some, but for the uninitiated (as I was a few months ago) cooking rice noodles can be tricky, and I have found that the best technique for getting the right texture -soft but not mushy- tends to vary by the size and brand of the noodle, and the package instructions don't always seem to produce the right consistency. I've found trial and error to be the best way to figure it out.

This is a meatless version (sprinkling 1/4 cup of peanuts over each bowl gives them one serving of protein), but the noodles taste great with chicken, beef, or shrimp. Add and stir-fry any meat or fish before adding the noodles.