Pad kra pao is a Thai holy basil stir fry that I think deserves the title: "National dish of Thailand". It’s a favourite of Thai people and Thai food lovers around the world, and if you're getting into Thai cooking, this has to be on your to-do list. (Not to mention it's super quick and easy!)
The more modern rendition of pad kra pao (the one your local Thai restaurant probably makes) contains veggies like green beans and onions; along with a more complex seasoning that might include oyster sauce, soy sauce, and dark soy sauce. This recipe, however, is an old-school, traditional style that is much simpler. Many Thais call this the original pad gaprao!
🛎 For the modern pad kra pao see my Thai holy basil chicken recipe.
What is pad kra pao?
Or is it "pad krapow"? Or "pad gaprao"? However you write it (more on that in the FAQ), it's a stir fry of meat (typically ground meat), holy basil, and loads of chilies. It’s served on rice, and usually with a fried egg on top.
In Thailand you can find it cooked to order from a street food vendor, served in a fancy restaurant, or provided in a box ready-to-eat from a grocery store. Anywhere you go in Thailand, you’re never far from a pad gaprao. It really IS the food of the people!
Pad kra pao literally means "holy basil stir fry," so the holy basil is the key ingredient here. This recipe uses ground beef, but can be made with any kind of protein. Of all Thai stir fries, this is one of the easiest to make, and a great weeknight recipe as minimal prep is required. And it's gluten free!
Here are the ingredients you'll need, and as you can see, it's super simple!
ingredients for pad kra pao
Sugar Unsalted beef stock, chicken stock, or water Ground black pepper if using beef. For chicken and pork white pepper will also work. Holy basil or regular fresh basil leaves. Thai basil will also work, more on substituting holy basil below. Eggs, for making fried eggs. Technically optional, but highly recommended.
Jasmine rice for serving. Prik nam pla (optional) is a spicy fish sauce condiment classically served with pad gaprao. I like to put it on my fried egg to season it, but some people put it on their rice. You just need some fish sauce, chilis, and a squeeze of lime.
How to Make Pad Gaprao
Here's a bird's eye view of the steps. Before you make it, be sure to watch the video tutorial in order to ensure success, especially if this is your first time! If you enjoy it, check out my YouTube channel for more Thai cooking videos!
Process shots for making pad kra pao steps 1-4 In a mortar and pestle, pound the Thai chilies into a fine paste. Add the garlic and the chopped mild chilies and pound just into a rough paste. Heat a wok over high heat, then add the beef and spread it out. Sear the beef without moving it until the underside is browned. Toss and keep cooking until liquid from the beef starts to come out. Let the beef cook, stirring occasionally, until all liquid has evaporated and the beef starts to sizzle and brown further to develop flavour. Push the beef to one side of the pan, add a little more oil and add the garlic and chili mixture, then sauté until garlic starts to turn golden. Process shots for making pad kra pao steps 5-8 Toss the garlic with the beef then add about half of the stock or water, fish sauce and sugar; toss to mix well. Add the julienned mild chilis and toss for 30 seconds; if it’s looking too dry, add a splash more water or stock. Turn off the heat, add the basil and mix just until wilted. Taste and adjust seasoning with more sugar or fish sauce as needed. To fry eggs with crispy whites an runny yolk. Heat about ¼ inch of frying oil to a small nonstick frying pan over medium-high heat. Once hot, add only the egg white and let it fry until the edges start to turn brown, then using a spoon, push the middle of the white down to make an indent for the yolk to sit in. Break any big bubbles that form in the center. (If you want a firmer yolk, simply fry the whole egg.) Process shots for making pad kra pao steps 9-12 Once the egg white is browned around the edges, carefully place the yolk into the indentation on top of the white. Use a spoon to baste some oil around the edges of the egg yolk to help it stick. Let it cook for a bit longer if you prefer the yolk to be a little bit more set. Use a wire skimmer to remove from the pan and allow to drain. Spoon pad kra pao over some jasmine rice, and top with the fried egg. You can then drizzle the prik nam pla on top of the egg.
How to Make Prik Nam Pla
Prik nam pla is the classic condiment that is served with many Thai dishes, and is used as a tableside seasoning booster. Pad kra pao is usually served with it because the fried egg can always use some extra seasoning.
You don't need a recipe for prik nam pla, in the same way that you don't need a recipe for a PB & J sandwich, because you can make it to your preference. But here is a guideline to get you started:
process shots for how to make prik nam pla, steps 1-2 Combine chopped chilies and fish sauce in a small bowl. You can also add thinly sliced garlic and/or shallots if you want to make a fancier one. You can add as many chilies as you like. Add a squeeze of lime for some acidity. The amount is up to your preference (some people don't even add any), but a good start is 1 part lime juice to 3 parts fish sauce.
Holy Basil vs. Thai Basil
A bunch of holy basil Holy Basil Many of us are familiar with Thai basil (called horapa in Thai), the sweet-smelling herb with purple stems that come with your pho. But few have come across holy basil.
Compared to Thai basil, holy basil has a fragrance that is less floral and more peppery; which is why it’s paired with very spicy dishes like pad kra pao or jungle curry. The aroma is always hard to describe, but trust me when I say the two smell quite different.
a bunch of thai basil Thai basil The fragrance is also milder than Thai basil, and unless it’s freshly picked from a healthy plant, it can be rather faint. This is why even in the rare occasion where I can find fresh holy basil, it’s not always a good purchase.
Note: if you’ve ever had pad kra pao in a Thai restaurant outside of Thailand, they might be actually be using Thai basil because holy basil is unavailable. Unless, of course, you live in a big enough city with enough Thai restaurants to warrant a supplier bringing it in.
The Best Substitute for Holy Basil
While you might be tempted to use Thai basil as a substitute because it's...well...Thai, in my experience, you're better off using regular basil, also known as Italian basil. The flavour of Thai basil is so distinct from holy basil that you will end up with a dish that tastes quite different (though still tasty).
A bunch of italian basil Good old regular Italian basil is my preferred substitute for holy basil. It's also much easier to find! Regular Italian basil, while not the same, is a closer flavour match. And I’m usually perfectly satisfied with it when I have to use it. Having said that, if your goal is to replicate that pad kra pao you love from your takeout place, they might actually be using Thai basil!
Based on Hot Thai kitchen