Updated: Sep 7, 2021
Phad Ka Prao (in English stir fry with chili and basil) is likely the most ubiquitous dish in Thailand. It's a dish that my Thai cuisine instructor referred to as, "the one dish we Thai people could eat every day."
In school, we made Phad Ka Prao Moo Sab, the ground pork version. I learned the secret to getting restaurant quality results or "authentic flavor" for this dish is generating substantial chili aroma. This is a very aromatic dish (like all Thai dishes), and the most forward aromas in this dish are coming from the chilis and the basil. The basil needs no intervention, you'll get all the aroma you need by just tossing it in, but the chilis need a bit of time.
So, how do you get a good chili aroma? You're building your base layer of aroma in the first step in the stirfry process, where you'll start by stir frying your chopped small bird's eye chilis and garlic together. You should stir fry the chili and garlic until you get a really nice aroma from them and your garlic is just starting to turn golden. However, I found that my pan was very aromatic for the entirety of the cooking time, so I think another indicator is needed. The next indicator is the color of your cooking oil. Your oil should start to pick up color from the chilis, changing from neutral to orange. If your wok or pan is black, you won't see the oil changing color, so find a way to test it. A little edge of a paper towel just dipped into the oil will tell you right away if the oil has developed color.
Now... I worry you'll see that this recipe calls for 10 bird's eye chilis and you'll think this dish is way too spicy for you. But I've got a few ideas to offer, that I hope you'll consider: 1. You can probably handle more spice than you think. 2. The spice level is reduced with the somewhat long cook time of the chilies. and 3. I just made this and used all 10 chilies, and I didn't find it very spicy at all. The cooking of the chilis substantially reduces their spiciness. In a raw application, like a green papaya salad, I max out at 2 chilies, but in this cooked application, I can handle 10, no problem.
But if you want to make this dish less spicy you have a few options. You could use a less spicy pepper, maybe a red jalapeno. Or you could reduce the number of chilis you use. But use at least 5; it's really important to have enough chili present to develop your base layer aroma that is so iconic in this dish. I encourage you to try making at least one batch of the Thai spice level version!
Traditionally this dish is served with a chili fish sauce with, but I don't tend to eat it. I will include the side sauce measurements in the written recipe.
Thai Chili Explained
I've always been confused about which chili peppers to buy when a recipe calls for "thai chilies." It's a vague term, and I'm not sure it actually means anything because Thai cuisine uses 2 types of spicy chilies... so which one is the Thai one?! At Le Cordon Bleu, they don't use the term "Thai chili" to refer to the chilies we cook with, which leads me to think that it's an unofficial term. The three types of chilies used most commonly in Thai cuisine are:
1. Large chilies (red, green and yellow), right photo. These are mostly sweet and are used as a vegetable in a dish, instead of bell peppers. Red and green varieties are quite mild, while yellow is a bit spicy. They are large, about 5 inches in length.
2. Bird's eye chilies (red and green), left and center photos. Bird's eye chilies are medium spicy. The fresh green chilies are used as the base for green curry. The fresh red chilies are used in Pah Ka Prao. Dried red bird's eye chilies are used in every Thai curry paste (except green curry). The spice level between red and green is the same (green is unripe), though their spice levels will change seasonally, with spicier chilies in the dry seasons. This is the chili that I think recipes are referring to when they call for "Thai chilies," as they are used in greater abundance compared to the small bird's eye.
3. Small bird's eye chilies (red and green) not pictured, are about the size of a dime. These are the spiciest chilies commonly used in Thai cuisine and are used in small quantities. It is common to keep the stem on when using these chilies, because the stem is also spicy in flavor. To date this has been the only super spicy chili we have used in class - but maybe I'll learn about different chili varieties when we study regional food next term!
I hope I've provided some clarification about what a "Thai Chili" is. I think generally, recipes calling for Thai Chilies are referring to the standard medium spicy bird's eye chilies.
Veggie / Flexitarian Version!
Who knew there was so much to say about Phad Ka Prao! Well, lastly I just wanted to comment on the "ism" of this recipe. This isn't a vegan or even a vegetarian recipe. My intention was to make a meat free recipe that stood up against the conventional versions you will find in Thailand. This recipe lends itself well to this goal as ground meat doesn't look so different from crumbled tofu. I am thinking of it as flexitarian, it's a mostly vegetarian recipe with one little essential animal product included.
These are the exact seasonings used in Thailand for Phad Ka Prao Moo Sod or Phad Ka Prao Gai, as taught to me in Thai culinary school. As with nearly every Thai recipe, fish sauce is an essential seasoning so it is often impossible to make an "authentic" Thai recipe vegan or vegetarian (except for desserts!). I've looked for vegan fish sauce in Thailand and I haven't found any in the shops. I found one called Fysh Sauce on the US amazon site that is made of seaweed, which seems promising to me. I would be very interested to try it, though I've heard Thai chefs say that vegan fish sauce isn't worth the trouble. If you can't find vegan fish sauce, I have a super simple substitution in the recipe.
Recipe: Phad Ka Prao Tao Hoo (Tofu)
1 large serving
1 block firm or medium-firm tofu (200 grams)
1 cup sliced sweet peppers (red, yellow or orange)
1 1/2 cups basil (holy basil or Thai basil ideally)
2 tablespoon (20g) garlic
2 tablespoon (20g) red bird's eye chilies (about 10 chilies)
1 tablespoon (20g) fish sauce (Vegan: 1 teaspoon water + 1 teaspoon soy sauce + pinch salt)
1 teaspoon (5g) light soy sauce
1 teaspoon (5g) sugar (I used brown, use any sweetener you like)
1/2 teaspoon (2g) dark soy sauce (for color, optional if you can't find it)
Optional Side Sauce
2 tablespoon (40g) fish sauce
1 teaspoon (5g) lime juice
1 tablespoon (10 g) sliced garlic
1 tablespoon (10g) sliced small bird's eye chilies
2 tablespoons (40g) + 2 teaspoons (10g) cooking oil
Prepare the vegetables and tofu for the stir fry:
- Remove the basil leaves from the stems, measure to 1 1/2 cup.
- Slice peppers to fairly uniform bite-sized pieces, measure to 1 cup.
- Break apart the entire block tofu with your hands, into small bite-sized pieces slightly resembling ground meat. Lay the tofu piece on a kitchen towel, and cover them with another kitchen towel to blot out as much water as your can, pressing on it gently with your hands.
- Give a medium fine chop to two tablespoons of garlic and bird's eye chilies respectively. If you have a mortar and pestle, you can go the traditional route and give them a quick pound into a rough paste (with large chunks of both chili and garlic still present).
Measure and mix the seasoning ingredients and reserve them in a small bowl. They include:
1 tablespoon (20g) fish sauce
1 teaspoon (5g) light soy sauce
1 teaspoon (5g) sugar
1/2 teaspoon (2g) dark soy sauce
- If you're making the side sauce, mix all the ingredients and store in the fridge.
- Put a wok or large skillet (non stick or carbon steel) on a burner at medium heat, add 1 T oil, and add the garlic and chili paste right away before the oil gets hot. Reserve the other tablespoon of oil, add it to the pan if you need it as you stir fry.
- Stir fry this until the oil turns orange and you get food aroma from the chilies (watch that your garlic doesn't burn)
- When your oil is orange, add your tofu and continue to stir fry for about 3-5 minutes
- Add your sweet peppers and seasoning and continue to stir fry
- When your peppers are cooked to your liking (about 2-3 minutes for al dente) increase the heat to high and add your basil and continue to stir fry until it is wilted. Remove from pan.
Add an additional 1 teaspoon of cooking oil to your pan and fry an egg on medium high heat. It's traditional to have a very crispy white.
Serve the stir fry over steamed rice with the fried egg on top, fishy chili side sauce is optional.