“Look, Alicia, I got another one!” my roommate called out to me. I looked up from my computer screen to see her unpacking a plethora of Wegmans’ bags. They consumed almost every square inch of our tiny dorm kitchen. She was holding a bottled brown sauce, and I immediately let out a laugh.
“Another peanut sauce?!” I cried, “We have, like four now, Steph!”
“I know, I know,” she said, also laughing, “but this one is different because it is specifically for cold dishes.”
“Ah, so it won’t be a contender for pad thai, then?”
“Probably not,” she said, “but it wouldn’t hurt to try!”
Since roughly the beginning of quarantining last March, I have made it a personal mission to find the perfect peanut sauce recipe—and my roommate has made it her mission to find the perfect bottled peanut sauce, apparently. Both my roommates at school and my family at home have been frequent taste testers of many a pad thai attempt, as I try out combination after combination of sauce ingredients.
They all call for roughly the same selection. Soy sauce is a must, of course, or tamari works as a gluten free substitute. Fish sauce is crucial for that authentic Thai taste, and rice vinegar to enhance the tangy flavor. Next, a sprinkle of lime juice for tartness and citrus flavor, and sriracha to add spice. To balance out all the salt and savory, I add sweetness in the form of brown sugar (maple syrup or honey are also options here). Now, recipes veer off from one another when it comes to peanut butter. Some say it is not necessary, while others call for it to give the sauce a creamy consistency. Personally, I always add it, as I love as much peanut flavor as possible.
While the ingredient profile and flavor palette is generally the same across sauce recipes, the measurements and ratios differ drastically. Often, when following one recipe or another I end up with sauces that taste too spicy, too sweet, or just off for some reason that I cannot put my finger on.
“This is so citrusy,” Stephanie said after trying out one of my latest attempts.
“Really? There’s not even that much lime juice, though,” I responded, confused.
We both got up from the table to look through the ingredients, all still littering the counter with their half-closed lids. Clearly remembering that I had only put in a cap full of lime juice, I was stumped as to the source of the overpowering citrus flavor.
“Wait, look,” she said, “the garlic has citric acid in it.” As a precursor to stir frying the chicken, red peppers, and bean sprouts, I always lightly toast garlic in the pan with sesame oil.
“Oh, that must have been it,” I said, feeling satisfied that we had located the issue, but frustrated that it was a factor I hadn’t considered in the cooking process.
“Well, back to the drawing board, I guess!”
Sometimes, at lunchtime on lazy afternoons or dinners on busy nights, I make a peanut-based stir fry with roughly the same ingredients as pad thai, but I never grant it that name. These are usually the times I resort to the bottled sauces in the fridge, and skip out on chopping up scallions, peanuts, and lime wedges for garnish. I like to call these easy meals “lazy pad thai,” mostly because they don’t require the painstaking process of creating the sauce.
For me, the heart of the pad thai cooking process lies in achieving the perfect peanut sauce. Beyond this, it is a relatively simple recipe with a short cook time. While it is something I have made very often, I always hesitated to call it my “speciality” until I was satisfied with the sauce.
One Tuesday evening, my roommate asked if I could make a batch of pad thai for dinner. I quickly ran through the ingredient list in my mind to make sure I had everything. Chicken? Check. Rice noodles? Check. Eggs? Check. Peppers? Check. Bean sprouts? Check. Scallions? Check. Peanuts? Check. Now, for the sauce. I had never made it for this particular roommate before, so I really wanted to make sure it came out well.
“Can I help with anything?” she asked.
“If you want to start the chicken,” I suggested, “I’m going to concentrate on the sauce for a minute.”
This time, it was Stephanie’s turn to call out to us from her laptop in the living room, “Why don’t you guys just use one of the bottled ones?”
“No, no, no,” I protested, “I got it this time. I promise.”
Staring at the ingredients placed neatly around a small bowl and measuring spoons, I scrolled through the familiar recipe options on Google. I tried, but I kept getting confused about which ones I had tried and not liked, tried and liked, or hadn’t tried at all—they were all mixed up in my mind.
You know what, I thought, why don’t I just try an equal amount of everything?
Smiling at how simple it was, I measured out two tablespoons of each of my seven ingredients—except sriracha, of which I did half this amount. Whisking everything up until the brown sugar dissolved and the peanut butter separated, I resolved to just go with this intuition, and not try to change anything. I always find that when I start adding more or less of various components, I lose track of the desired flavor profile and overanalyze the taste.
After mixing everything up together in the large wok I had brought from home, I plated the steaming noodles and garnished them with scallions and peanuts.
“Looks good!” my roommates declared.
“I know, now let’s see how it tastes,” I replied nervously.
I watched in anticipation as Stephanie brought a sticky, light-brown noodle to her mouth with a chopstick. While chewing, I watched the corners of her mouth rise into a soft smile.
“It’s perfect!” she declared. “Much better than the bottle.”
Cover Photo Courtesy of Pinch of Yum