It is a truth universally acknowledged that school food is awful. So when my classmates and I were finally given permission to buy our own lunches in high school, to say we were delighted would be an understatement. Every lunchtime, without fail, my best friend and I would queue for one of the many food stalls that lined the wall of our canteen. Our go-to meal, the one the two of us had every schoolday for three years, was kao pad kaprao.
Technically categorised as street food, kao pad kaprao is a heavenly concoction of Thai basil, chilli and meat, usually stir-fried with garlic, oyster sauce, fish sauce, sugar, salt or any other seasonings or sauces that take the cook’s fancy. The meat can be beef, pork, chicken or even seafood; some people — criminally, in my humble opinion — also add onions, carrots and long beans to the mix. Served with rice and sometimes a fried egg (every Thai person has a preference for how well done they like their fried egg to be), the dish is filling, tasty, fast and easy. Even the most woeful of cooks can make it well. It’s also one of the few Thai meals that you can buy for 30 baht on the street or for 200 baht at a fancy restaurant.
I’m fairly certain that the start of high school wasn’t my first time tasting kao pad kaprao, but from then on I started referring to it as my favourite dish. It’s still the one I turn to whenever I want to treat my foreign friends to a home-cooked Thai meal and convince them I’m not entirely useless in the kitchen. Whenever I craved Thai food while living in Europe, I would make myself kao pad kaprao. I found the meal ideal for days when I came home exhausted after hours of working or studying; it was cheap, took less than half an hour to make and filled the kitchen with a spicy, garlicky aroma.
Thais refer to kao pad kaprao as aharn sin kid, which means “the meal we fall back on when we can’t think of anything else to eat”, and aharn tam sung, which translates to “food we can order on demand”. The dish’s history is uncertain. Some say it originated with Chinese immigrants who settled in Thailand during the reign of King Rama V (1868–1910), and that it might even have been made in Thailand for the first time in the royal kitchens. Others tell a rather more apocryphal tale of a group of tourists who were so hungry that they crashed a restaurant in the middle of the night, woke the cook and begged him to whip up something with whatever ingredients he had on hand; the kao pad kaprao we know today evolved from whatever the cook came up with that night.
But no matter which tale you choose to believe, there is one fact associated with every story about kao pad kaprao: the dish started to become popular in the 1930s, around the time of King Rama VII and Prime Minister Plaek Phibunsongkhram (who was also responsible for popularising pad thai during the Second World War). This means that unlike traditional Thai foods — the various chilli pastes, tom yum dishes and desserts — kao pad kaprao cemented itself as quintessentially Thai as the country was shifting towards a different landscape, a time when more Thais began working outside of the home and had less time to prepare their meals — the beginning of a more modern, faster-paced Thailand.
If there were to be only one dish we Thais could enjoy at school every day with our best friends and make for ourselves halfway around the world whenever we longed for a taste of home, it would be this one.
Pim Wangtechawat is a Bangkok-based writer