Vegetarian Phad Ka Prao Recipe + "Thai Chilies" Explained
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.