In more ways than one.
As a generalization, the Thai people are more outwardly sweet than most cultures. It’s evident in the way they greet others, including their own, by folding their hands while slightly bowing their heads. They are typically smiling, pleasant, and respectful. Compared to other societies, the sweetness of the Thai people stands out. The Land of Smiles, while it may be an outward appearance, is one of the many charms of Thailand.
One of the other attractions is the distinctiveness of their food. But, and it’s a big but, over the past couple of generations, Thai’s have embraced the use of sugar in most of their meals. Almost every prepared dish has sugar as an added ingredient. Even sautéed vegetables are sugared. Most savory dishes have added sugar. It’s a phenomenon.
When I see young school-age Thai folk, it’s evident that a large chunk does not appear in ideal physical condition. A bulk of them look out of shape, with more extra weight in the wrong places than young people should have, especially youthful Asians. If I didn’t know better, I’d predict that Thailand is headed for a health crisis in the next few generations.
Out of interest, I took several Thai cooking courses at different Bangkok schools. In each, the students prepare and eat their individual dishes. In each, I declared that I wanted to cook without sugar. I was the oddball out in every workshop. In one class, six students were grouped together to prepare a dish, but I was castigated on my own due to my sugarless request. The chef in that school tasted the sugar-free chili paste, peanut sauce, and Tom Yam soup I had prepared and liked them all. Of course, she could have been fibbing to be polite. But then again she admitted she had eliminated sugar from her diet the prior year to slim down. An instructor in another school disclosed that her sister, a doctor, recommended that she stop cooking with sugar because it was unhealthy. (Hmm,…yet she continues to instruct cooking with sugar).
When I ask Thai chefs/cooks why they add sugar to most dishes, the answer almost uniformly is “it makes the food tastes better.” Really? Adding sweetness to already flavorful food so it tastes even better? Couldn’t that be considered a form of crafty trickery?
As a fan of Thai food, it’s more than a little disconcerting to know that sugar is being added to most dishes. To be clear, I’m not referring to desserts and sweet treats, of which, as in most cultures these days, there are plenty. In Thai dishes, sugar is added to main meal dishes, those that typically don’t have, or need, added sugar. Popular dishes such as Pad Thai and green papaya salad, (Som Tum) — both have added sugar. Peanut sauce used for sauteés — added sugar. Stir-fried vegetables — added sugar. Savory soups — added sugar.
The Thai food on the street is damn tasty. But to order a dish with no sugar is a challenge. When I do, the smile is replaced by forehead wrinkles. If sugar is left out, the tendency is to add more msg, Maggie seasoning, and/or honey. It’s become reflexive to add processed flavoring to the food. There are so many natural spices available that adding a tablespoon or two of sugar and msg seems like overkill. And indeed it might be.
Smart people who study cognitive neuroscience know that sugar is a deceptive drug and acts on the brain the same way that cocaine, opioids, and for that matter, any other pleasure substance does. The more we have, the more we want, and the more it takes to satisfy us. Credible researchers have shown that the world’s consumption of sugar has grown almost exponentially over the last few hundred years. Concerning evolution, that means we’ve just started gorging (overdosing?) on sweetness. During that same time, we’ve seen a parallel increase in lifestyle diseases, as well as epigenetic disorders (which we now know are hereditary).
In a savory dish, it can be hard to detect the addition of a teaspoon of white sugar. Sure the dish tastes good. Everyone in the world loves a subtle touch of sweetness. We gobble down good tasting food without a second thought. But if we are to believe an extensive body of recent evidence showing that processed sugar in our diet promotes toxicity and has detrimental long-term health effects, then it may be prudent to pay attention. All foods have natural trace amounts of sugars. So if food can’t stand on its own without the added sweetness, then the results may eventually turn slightly sour.
In the ideal world, we’d see a revolution in Thailand with the elimination of sugar as a key ingredient. But given that won’t happen anytime soon, the Thai’s will stay double sweet.