Many of Thailand’s most famous dishes have been a part of Thai culture for the better part of the history of Thailand. No one asks how they were created, because no one really knows the answer. They seem to have always been a part of Thai cuisine.
The one exception to this is the dish called Pad Thai. We know the history of Pad Thai because it is a relatively recent addition to the national cuisine. You could even call the dish a political marketing exercise.
The dish was invented in 1932 as a way to lessen China’s economic influence in Thailand. Prime Minister Plaek Phibunsongkhram created a campaign to promote Thai nationalism. A contest was held to create a new noodle dish using ‘sen chan’ rice noodles instead of wheat noodles. The winning entry was the dish that came to be known as Pad Thai.
China sold Thailand a lot of their wheat, and the PM wanted to lessen Thailand’s reliance on wheat as a way to curb China’s influence. At the same time, the PM used the contest to encourage the citizens of the country to think more nationalistically about their country.
Pad Thai certainly enjoys a modicum of popularity in Thailand. Every resident enjoys a plate of it every now and then. But it was overseas that the dish really took off. Practically every Thai restaurant overseas offers Pad Thai on their menu.
Because of this, a lot of tourists enter Thailand expecting to find Pad Thai served on every street corner in the country. This also has led to the phenomenon of some of the best Pad Thai restaurants being located in the tourist areas of Thailand.
Pad Thai was invented to increase Thai nationalism. Instead, it’s the tourists of the world who have proven to be the most avid consumers of the “national dish of Thailand.”