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The use of sugar in Asian dishes [moved from Manhattan board]

[NOTE: We've moved this discussion from the thread at http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/826456 -- The Chowhound Team]

When I was taught how to make curry by a thai chef, I tried to cut down on sugar (as I don't like it either). It didn't taste very good and the chef explained that thai curry balances sour, spicy and sweet. Finding this perfect balance makes the flavors "pop". I don't believe you'd enjoy thai curry with no sugar but I do agree that some restaurants add too much sugar resulting in lack of balance.

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  1. I have used Thai curry paste and cooked it, not from the book and had great results, without sugar. Thus said you may have a point.

    I had many meals in Bangkok and have to say that sugar was not being used in the preparations of the dishes. I ate all meals on the streets in evenings, with tables set up, on the street, and the kitchen wheeled in so to speak. Steered clear of white table clothed restaurants, or any place with a door. My palate was pleased daily.

    I have been so displeased with Thai restaurants here in the states or anywhere for that matter, simply due to the fact that these places are riding on some trendy tsunami (no pun intended) and all that I can see, taste, and pay for, fail in horrific ways.

    If you know of some Thai places to eat in NYC that are good, as you are a chef, let thy speaketh 那里:tell us where. Of course, the sugar issue, in moderation, or non at all.

    Since you have mentioned Thai food, not too recently gave into to countering my oath to never eat Thai cuisine in the states, and one of the horrible residue flavors that permeated this dish I ordered was sugar.

    And a second note, the kitchen could not provide results for a request for fresh, raw chopped chili. The wait staff had to walk to the outside front of the restaurant to the side of the enterence, pinch off a number of chilis from the potted display chili plant, rush to the kitchen, have the kitchen staff cut them up, then return with a skimp portion of cut chili for me, a paying customer, from the ornament outside the restaurant door.

    I would expect a Thai establishment to have raw chilis on hand. I suppose not. Or the owner likes to make extra work for the wait staff, by having them run outside and collect chilis from a plant, resulting in a non-satisfactory portion for your dish. I suppose that is real fresh, plucking the chili from the ornament outside the restaurant, but still lacking in quantity. Next time I will bring my own plant lush with chilis for the wait staff to pluck, and I will be certain to join in.

    And to bring us back to the topic at hand, sugar. I do feel that one could replace the sugar bowl on the center of the average American kitchen table with Srirachi Hot Sauce. It might go good over your morning Cherios. The number 2 ingredient in Srirachi is sugar。I don't think that it is imported to significant extent from California to Thailand, and they certainly do not use it in Hunan or Sichuan. Thus said, for some it manifests as spice katchup. Katchup also contains sugar, unless you choose carefully.

    16 Replies
    1. re: jonkyo

      I've travelled frequently through SE Asia, including Thailand and Vietnam. The cuisines of these nations is decidedly on the sweet side, never overly sweet but it is a key flavor along with salty/sour. I actually enjoy this unique combination of sweeet/savory flavors in a single dish and it's something that's part of the dominant ethos in the cooking of that part of the globe. So I find it surprising that you found that you can say "I had many meals in Bangkok and have to say that sugar was not being used in the preparations of the dishes." Are you claiming that *none* of the dishes, whether from a street kitchen or stall or restaurant had sugary or sweet products in them?

      1. re: Roland Parker

        Most of the food I have eaten in either Vietnam and Thailand seemed never to have any sugar in them and if so perhap at a level that made the sugar enhance or mesh with the overall flavor medley. A hint of sweet hidden perhaps in some of the pho soups and in some of the other dishes, such as barbacued pork. The grilled beef sought out by myself day time meals are devoid of sugar, and would add the accompanying noodles are too.

        I am stating that dishes eaten in stall or street kitchens in Bangkok as well as restaurants visited had no clue that sugar was being used.

        1. re: jonkyo

          "perhap at a level that made the sugar enhance or mesh with the overall flavor medley"

          I believe that would be the point, though I am sure there are some dishes where a bit more sweet flavour is supposed to break through beyond just balancing.

          1. re: Muchlove

            I have generally found very little problem with this, and can't remember is my times in Hong Kong had this.

            PRC and ROC can be mixed but never an frequent problem. Often at restaurants dined with many guests some dishes are sweet, but the fact that many dishes are ordered it never is a problem.

            1. re: Muchlove

              Well, jonkyo, you seem devoted to the idea that sugar is not used in Thai dishes, but the fact that sugar does not seem obtrusive is really a different point. Palm and other sugars are used pretty widely in Thai food, and the real goal--as the OP also notes--is balance. I do agree that American places often skew heavy on the sweet and light on the spicy, which is not balanced in Thai terms.

            2. re: jonkyo

              Sugar is a flavor that people beome less sensitive to, the more they eat. Someone who eats no added sugar can have a sensitivity for the taste of sugar that is 1,000 times more sensitive (or more) than someone who regularly eats dessert and drinks soft drinks.

              Many Americans eat a lot of sugar. If you include sweet drinks like soda and fruit juice, Americans consume an average if 187 lbs of sugar a year. That's more than 15 lbs a month. So you can put lot of sugar in a dish before it tastes sweet to some Americans.

              What tastes like a balance of sweet & salty to an American might taste really too sweet to an Asian. Especially in Asian-American restaurants, cooks may intentionally adjust the sugar up to American sense of taste.

              1. re: AsperGirl

                This makes much sense.

                Sugar is rarely a problem in PRC or ROC or ROC or ROP or even Eastern Europe, Europe, Africa, a well as those respective cusine here. I have never encountered this problem of too much sugar in Middle Eastern cusine or th Greek food I have eaten. Hindu cusine has never presented this problem.

                It can be a problem in Italian American food, American food, diner food, and Asian American food.

                1. re: jonkyo

                  Oh yeah, Italian American food can be sooo sweet if someone with typical American palate makes it. My mother in law told me she makes makes her spaghetti sauce with sugar, which I gather is fairly common in housewife-suburbia.

                  We don't go to Asian restaurants anymore unless they're in a community where there are a lot of Asians around. Otherwise you get shockingly sweet Thai, Chinese, and even Korean food like candy.

                  1. re: AsperGirl

                    I can't stand sugar in Italian pasta sauces. I won't order anything with red sauce in an Italian restaurant. Many cookbooks also call for sugar in their spaghetti meat sauces. The theory is that it balances the acidity of the tomatoes. It just tastes awful to me, and I'm a sweets person when it comes to desserts and after dinner drinks. We had a friend, an all around terrible cook, who made her sauce with sugar - if she invited us over for a day at the beach followed by dinner my Mom always offered to bring a pot of spaghetti sauce if she'd make the dessert.

                2. re: AsperGirl

                  The "typical" American diet (and to a lesser extent the European diet) does indeed comprise an astonishing amount of sugar. I still have a (originally 5 lb) bag of sugar I bought at least 15 years ago which is about half-used now, and that includes digging into it for some baking recently that I did where i used more sugar from that bag than I had used in the past 4 or 5 years. But then, I am of Chinese descent and sugar (added as the granulated etc form) has never been part of my diet to a significant extent whether growing up or now.

                  Thai food in America seems to me to be frequently over-sweet, whether from addition of sugar or from leaving out so much of the heat/hotness component to suit the average USAmerican taste that the sweetness becomes so overwhelming.

                  1. re: AsperGirl

                    yes, but sometimes this sense of American taste is way skewed. We often have to stop eating at Chinese and Thai restaurants because everything is just too sweet and even when we ask for less sweet they don't seem to believe us.

                      1. re: jonkyo

                        Yes, the question "does this food taste too sweet" is an entirely different issue than "does this cuisine use sugar as a key ingredient." As MVNYC notes, Vietnamese food, for instance, uses sugar in lots of different ways.

                        I'd add a couple things re: Vietnamese food: the aim of using sugar is not always to achieve balance. Mung bean paste desserts will corrode your tooth enamel on contact! (And they are delicious with tea, although no one will believe me after that description.)

                        Also, there are the preferences of different cooks, restaurants, families, to take into account. For example, I prefer making pho broth without sugar because that's how my mom does it. But many recipes do include sugar; this variation is hardly a question of better or worse or adjusting for "American" tastebuds, just what that cook happens prefer. I find that nuoc cham, which MVNYC describes, can vary a lot in sweetness, too.

                        But while I find it tough to generalize about these things, my Vietnamese mom has no hesitation about labeling all of Japanese cuisine "too sweet"! (Uh...see bean paste thing above)

                  2. re: jonkyo

                    Vietnamese food, while not always sweet by American standards certainly contains sugar. Nuoc mam cham, the Vietnamese dipping sauce has sugar in it and you get that with most grilled meats there. Bo luc lac has sugar in the marinade. That's just scratching the surface without even mentioning nuoc mau, the caramel sauce that you can cook a number of proteins in. Also there is shrimp paste grilled on sugar cane. The list can go on but these are some of the more famous ones

                    1. re: jonkyo

                      Oh, I'm afraid the Thais add sugar to almost every single dish which they cook. In fact, if you look carefully at the picture of the noodle dish in my recent post from Bangkok, you can even discern the white sugar crystals sprinkled atop the noodles!
                      http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/8325...

                    2. re: Roland Parker

                      Coconut milk, anyone? Even the unsweetened, fairly low carb stuff seems to bring a sweetness to a dish. At least according to my taste buds.

                      And we aren't even getting into Thai iced tea, which by me (Thai restaurant capitol of the Southeast) is served sweeter than US Southern sweet tea.

                  3. "the chef explained that thai curry balances sour, spicy and sweet"

                    Except every cuisines make similar claim as well. I have never heard of a cuisine motto is "We like to use excessive salt and inadequate sugar". That being said, every cuisines has its standard of balance, and it is important to hit that point. For example, Japanese desserts are much milder (less sweet) and lighter (less fat) than American desserts. They both claim they have the right balance of favor. Yet, it is important not to reply on American standard while making Japanese food, and vice versa.

                    "I do agree that some restaurants add too much sugar resulting in lack of balance"

                    All restaurants add more favor than home cook versions. It is not just the Thai restaurants.

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                      I used sugar in some cooking a very long time ago, but stopped, a very long time ago.

                      And shortly after becoming an adult, sugar became the SECOND American staple to be TOTALLY absent from my kitchen.

                      The first being MILK.

                      My kitchens are milk free and sugar free no matter where I live or how close I may be to a dairy farm or a sugar plantation.

                      There are many advantages to this.

                      My cooking has been appreciated by housemates (sugar kicking around in shared kitchen of course but I never use), guests, friends, etc etc.

                      1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                        I love almost all Japanese food, except the desserts. When I lived there the sweetest thing around was Castella cake. Over the years I got to actually like and, occasionally, crave it. ;-) Most of my Japanese friends would ask me to bake desserts for dinner parties and sometimes ask me to come over and bake just for them. Now that I've returned to America I teach baking to those same friends when they come to visit, then they go back to Japan and wow their friends.

                        1. re: KailuaGirl

                          :) Showing off. I do remember those Castella Cake, and I remember likening them. I need to buy some when I see them again.

                      2. Oh, I guess Asian here means Thai?

                        I was gonna bitch about the sugar often sprinkled over dan dan noodles. NOT a fan of that, at all. Always have to ask our local Sichuan haunt to leave it off.

                        1. Interesting that you ask. I just posted on another CH board the quick stir-fry of a bag of shredded coleslaw cabbage to which you then add a teaspoonful each of soy sauce, sherry, and sugar. I wondered as I did it if putting sugar with cabbage would sound odd to people but it ends up tasting good, much better than plain cabbage.

                          5 Replies
                          1. re: Querencia

                            I wondered as I did it if putting sugar with cabbage would sound odd to people
                            ~~~~~~~~~
                            definitely not. standard/traditional coleslaw dressing contains sugar, as do dishes like sweet & sour cabbage.

                            1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                              I know this am so disappointed in that fact.

                              I just love cole slaw but dislike this sugar fact. I don't eat it much

                              1. re: jonkyo

                                Well, if you make it yourself, you can make it w/out or as little as possible.

                                1. re: jonkyo

                                  The responses you have posted on this thread make it seem like you are on a holy crusade against sugar in the USA... ;-)

                            2. Growing up in Malaysia, I was told to balance between, sour (tamarind, usually), sweet (sugar or palm sugar), salty (salt or soy sauce) and hot (chilli pepper). At the same time, the dish should not be too sour, too sweet, too salty, or too hot. It was confusing, believe me; especially being 12 with no real recipes to refer to since everything was just to taste.

                              But, for most cooking I would sprinkle the sugar the way I would sprinkle the salt. That's how it's done with my family anyway. The only time, I've seen sugar is used in large quantity in Malay cooking is when making Sambal. Sugar is used to tone down the heat. I still haven't mastered making that, so I typically cheat by adding some tomato paste in toning down the heat. From trial and error, I learned that sometimes using less of something would take care of the flavor balance issue.

                              That said, the main complain I heard from my family when they come to the States is that everything is too sweet and not spicy enough.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: tsl_saga

                                My grandmother's cook also taught me to use sugar to balance salty, sour and sweet (heat does not come up much in Filipino cuisine). She used sugar liberally, but her food never tasted sweet, just balanced.