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Vietnamese cuisine & sugar?

I've been peeking at various Vietnamese, and just Southeast Asian in general, cookbooks and recipes and notice that many, many of the recipes call for sugar--I'm drawn to the fresh vegetables and lean meats typical of most Vietnamese dishes and was thinking it would be fun to explore during my "healthy eating" kick. Is sugar a fairly typical ingredient in Vietnamese cooking or am I looking at the wrong cookbooks? I am very sensitive to sugar and try to avoid cooking with it, if at all possible. Am I exploring the wrong cuisine?

Thank you,


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  1. Occasionally I just leave the sugar out, and I have also sometimes used a tad of Splenda and not noticed a difference.

    1. The Vietnamese cooking tradition is a combination of Chinese, ethnic Viet cuisine (there are many ethnicities within the country), and much of the sugar you are referring to is a tradition coming from Vietnam's first colonizer China. They have a tradition of combining sweet, sour, spicy, salty, and the fish sauce which is a 5th flavor element....to convey harmony in your mouth. Sugar and the use of it is an integral part of their culinary expression. To do away with it or limit it would render the food anything but Vietnamese. Stick to their soups Pho Bo......not so much sugar.....or stay away from dipping sauce....

      1. A common theme in both Vietnamese and Thai food is the combination of hot, sour, salty and sweet. Palm sugar is more flavorful compared to white sugar but a little Splenda will work without a tremendous compromise

        1. Thanks, all. At least I wasn't imagining it and it does make sense from a balance perspective. You do want the sweet to balance the spicy and sour.


          1. I also have a little sugar issue. I generally use a less processed sugar or even a fruit product (homemade jam for example) Adds a little something and at least mentally makes me feel better. The amount of sweetener versus the vegetables and other good stuff is minimal and I find it a really "healthy" option.

            1. I think you must use the sugar. It is usually just a spoon for the whole dish or sauce, not like a spoon per portion. If you leave it out, the flavor won't taste right. If you are going for authenticity, use the sugar. The only dish you should avoid if you don't like sugar is one made in caramelized sugar sauce (nuoc mau) which you would use in "thit kho" dishes and so forth...

              1. As others have said, you don't have to add a significant amount of sugar. Just a dash can be enough to add some flavor. My mom used to add a touch of sugar to all the Vietnamese dishes she made, whether it was a tomato soup with tofu or a broiled fish.

                Looking at the big picture--if you are cooking with less oil and fat, eating lean meats and vegetables, a smidgen of sugar won't hurt.
                Now, making a pot of che (the sugar-y coconut dessert) is another story...

                1. Vietnamese cuisine generally has a bit of sugar in it (with the exception of things like pho). It's usually minimal, but I know that for some people, even the tiniest bit can set off things. If you can tolerate it you may want to try substituting a "light" tasting sweetener like agave or palm sugar. Sweeteners like maple syrup and molasses will throw off the balance of Vietnamese dishes.

                  If that is too much for you, I'm afraid that Vietnamese cuisine (and other cuisines like Thai) may not be the best for you at the moment. The good news is that this extreme sugar sensitivity is probably not a permanent thing. A lot of people can tolerate sugar later down the road if they eliminate it for some time.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: Miss Needle

                    actually pho has a bit of sugar in the broth...the slight sweetness of nuoc pho is one of its characteristics.

                    1. re: luckyfatima

                      I've found a few recipes that don't call for sugar. I don't think it's necessary as the caramelization from the onions and the spices add a sweet flavor to the pho. Recipes such as lemongrass chicken definitely do need sugar to balance it out.

                  2. As a Vietnamese, I find most restaurants and cookbooks call for a lot more sugar than food that I've grown up - cooking at home, we rarely use much except for a tad to dilute fish sauce. South Vietnamese tend to use more sugar than central and northern Vietnamese, and most restaurants tend to be southern style, which explain so much sweetness in many Vietnamese restaurants.

                    I myself, am confounded by dishes like canh chua, which means sour soup, but most I've tried in restaurants are sugary sweet. It's not traditional to make it so sweet.

                    A native Thai told me the same about Thai food in the states - it's much, much sweeter than traditional preparations.

                    1. PALM SUGAR! They have it at Asian markets and it's a lot better for you than the refined stuff. It is expensive, especially compared to regular sugar, but I don't use sugar that often so I don't mind the extra cost. Great for Viet Savory dishes because while the recipes do often call for sugar, it typically isn't that much.

                      1. Thank you, everyone, for your comments here. I will probably try to do as MMRuth and others suggest and leave the sugar out and add just a dash of splenda and/or, on a rare occasion, just dash of honey, jam, or palm sugar (which I am quite familiar with) and see how that goes. Though it is true that I am trying to eat healthier (lower fat, etc.), my concerns about my sugar intake are less about "dieting" and personal preference and more about following my doctor's advice to monitor my sugar intake very carefully.


                        1 Reply
                        1. re: The Dairy Queen

                          just fyi, you could also use agave nectar, which is very low on the glycemic index, or stevia, which is a 0 on the GI for sweeteners.