Phibunsongkhram, better known as Phibun in Western historical accounts, had played a prominent role as a military officer in a coup that stripped Thailand’s monarchy of its absolute powers, and in 1938, he became prime minister.
Thailand, which was then known as Siam, had never been colonized, but it was surrounded by French and British colonies. Siam was also an ethnically diverse country with strong regional identities. Worried about his country’s independence, disintegration, and, most of all, support for his rule, Phibun decided to transform the country’s culture and identity.
Phibun passed 12 Cultural Mandates (which included changing the name of the country to Thailand) exhorting the Siamese people to be productive, well-mannered, and proud of their country.
As part of his campaign, Phibun ordered the creation of a new national dish: pad Thai.
The exact origins of pad Thai remain contested. According to some accounts, Phibun announced a competition to create a new, national dish. Phibun’s son, however, says that his family cooked the dish before Phibun made it government policy, although he does not remember who invented it.
Either way, the dish’s roots are Chinese. Its full name is kway teow phat Thai. Kway teow means rice noodles in a Chinese dialect, and the entire name means stir-fried rice noodles Thai-style. Noodles and stir-frying are very Chinese, and immigration likely brought the practice to Siam. Flavors like tamarind, palm sugar, and chilies were the Thai twists.
By releasing a pad Thai recipe and promoting it, Phibun turned one potential take on stir-fried noodles into a national dish – a uniquely Thai dish which would help to unify the country.