It's the 1930's and the world is consumed by conflict. The French and English armies colonized most of Thailand's neighbors, while Japan has all but conquered China. Thai Prime Minister Plaek Phibunsongkhram had a problem. Internally, the country was ethnically divided, and chaos ensued externally. Faced with existential threats, Phibun did what dictators do best: appease foreign forces and strong-arm his own population into cultural change.
Phibun's version of nation building included all the hallmarks of an aspiring dictator: he banned local languages and dialects and of course, changed the country's name from Siam to Thailand. Phibun was driven to unify Thai people under one language, but he needed more than just language. What other than language can unify people? What brings people together better than food?
At the time, Thai people preferred rice over noodles despite the rice shortage during WW2. Rice noodles presented a great alternative, as they are made from rice flour and other ingredients for texture and appearance. Phibun's cook stir-fried the rice noodles first and added Thai herbs and spices, which made it the perfect dish. It all made sense, except for one little problem. At a time of heightened conflict, Thai people didn't want to eat what they perceived as Chinese food.
Phibun's obsession with “Thai-ness” had a simple solution for this: name the dish Pad Thai (translation: Thai noodles). The other thing dictators are really good at is running national campaigns, and with that “Noodle is Your Lunch” campaign was launched. The campaign included giving out free lunch to create buzz and excitement around it.
It's not unusual for militaries to get involved with food, driven by the need to provide nutrition to troops and/or population. What is perhaps unique here is that the real inventor of the dish is an unsung hero who was a maid for Thailand's longest-serving Prime Minister. So the next time you see someone crediting Phibun with the creation of the Pad Thai, remember, he just took what he was served and ran with it.
And more importantly, Noodles is Your Lunch!