Pad kaphrao has a strong claim to be Thailand’s most loved dish. The meal – holy basil fried with minced meat – is a quick and easy staple. It is a regular among street vendors whose woks fill the air with a distinctive, fiery aroma, and on the menus of high-end restaurants and in the ready-made sections of convenience stores.
But abroad it is overshadowed by the likes of pad thai and green curry – and when it does feature on menus, the ingredients tend to differ from those used in Thailand.
This weekend, Thailand’s first national pad kaphrao competition was held, aimed at finding the best recipe.
“The major concern is that the kaphrao we have in Thailand and kaphrao we have in UK, in the States and in other European countries – why is it so different?” said Yuthasak Supasorn, the governor of Tourism Authority of Thailand, which hosted the event.
“[People will] know what the authentic recipe of pad kaphrao is. No more baby corn, no more onion, no more carrots,” Yuthasak said, referring to some of the controversial ingredients that have been added to the dish. Such additions can cause offence to pad kaphrao purists.
Chefs taking part in this weekend’s competition were more relaxed about using vegetables. “It is an easy dish – it’s chilli, basil, garlic and meat, so whatever vegetable you have left in the fridge you can put it in,” said Chakkrit Chuma, 30, who won the title. But swapping the key ingredients – using the wrong type of basil – would not give the same taste, he added.
Chakkrit, who is from Lampang in northern Thailand and was taught by his chef father, said another mistake was to make the dish too spicy. “Pad kaphrao has to be salty first, sweet after and then feeling hot and spicy in your mouth. Sometimes people just make it too spicy and you don’t taste anything else.” He uses seven different types of chilis when cooking, to give variation.
Paphakorn Niyomsub, 38, who was also taking part in the finals of the competition, said the crucial thing was that the dish must be aromatic and dry, without too much oil.
Paphakorn practised so much in the runup to the competition that if you walked into his home you would sneeze, he said. He has always loved the meal. “I used to be in a boarding school and every time I got home I always had to visit a pad kaphrao shop,” he said. It was from the owner of that shop that he learned how to make the meal.
Pad thai was perhaps more famous internationally because of its name, he said. “It’s also not spicy, it’s easy to eat.”
Pad thai in large part owes its status to Field Marshal Plaek Phibulsongkram, also known as Phibun, an admirer of Mussolini who became Thai prime minister in 1938. He passed a series of cultural mandates in an effort to strengthen national identity, changing the country’s name from Siam to Thailand and giving guidance on how to dress, what language to use and what to eat. His efforts to promote eating noodles led to the creation of pad thai.
Paphakorn, like many Thais, said he did not often eat pad thai. Pad kaphrao was Thailand’s true national dish, he said.
Famously, it was this meal that the Wild Boars football team said they longed for after they became trapped in the darkness of a cave in Chiang Rai in 2018.
Pajaree Pakprom, 60, who was among those who had come to sample the food and watch the pad kaphrao contest in Bangkok, said she thought more foreigners could enjoy the dish.
She advised people to try eating it with a fried egg on top. “Without a fried egg, it’s not as delicious. They go well together,” she said. The dish was aromatic and convenient. “Even if you buy and keep it to eat later, it’s good. It doesn’t lose its taste.”
The tourism authority hopes to attract visitors who want to come to try the real thing. “We know that [food] is the best way to increase the spending per trip of the tourists or travellers who come to Thailand,” Yuthasak said. The authority estimates that food accounts for about 20% of a tourist’s spending during a trip, and hopes to increase this to 25%.
For domestic tourists, too, he said, people did not talk about where they would stay but instead “where we want to go, what we want to eat”.