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.
When I was younger, one of the jokes my then 80-year old grandmother delightedly told me was: A woman was just waking up from an operation in the hospital recovery room, still drowsy from the anesthesia. She lifted her head slightly and looked around the room. There were two men dressed in white standing against the wall talking to each other. After a few minutes, one of them walked over to her bed, lifted the covers, looked her up and down, then returned and continued talking to the other man. A minute or so later, the second guy approached her bed and did the same thing. As he lifted the covers, she said, “hey, what am I here for, an operation or observation?” The guy said, “I don’t know lady, we’re just the painters.”
Call me simple-minded, but the joke still gives me a mild kick. (As an aside, in high school, two of the many jobs I had were 1) as a porter in a hospital, where I swabbed the deck of the main parts of the hospital, including the recovery room, and 2) as a painter. I never had such an observation.)
There are different reasons for being observant. When my brother and I rode bicycles across part of the country, he would observe things that passed me by. Our attentions drifted on different aspects of the trip. Various observations, different perspectives, and neither right or wrong. They just are. No conclusions were drawn.
Not to overdo posts about the country where I’m living, but I’ve observed something that does not require lifting any blankets. Observation: a significant portion of young Chinese children, especially girls, need to wear eye glasses.
Requiring glasses to see well early in life sure seems like a genetic defect. It’s not natural. Some have drawn the conclusion that the unusually high percent of myopia is due to the social environment of studying too much and being indoors. That theory doesn’t float my logic boat.
The author of Deep Nutrition, mentioned in a post a few weeks ago, makes a convincing case that the two most widely used toxic food ingredients — sugar and vegetable oil, are having damaging effects on not only us but also our offsprings.
Most of us have heard that processed sugars are not good, but we still eat sweet stuff in humungous amounts. The Chinese have kicked Western habits into high gear and have started to sweeten everything, to a sickening degree. And, they use massive amounts of vegetable oil as a staple kitchen item. These oils have been used now for decades. Vegetable and seed oils are sold in every mini-market in 3-liter containers. They cook everything in this oil, including sugar.
The production of vegetable and seed oils requires about 20 different processes including the use of high heat and deodorization, which alters the molecular makeup. Consistent consumption of these toxic oils, the author argues, negatively affects our chromosomal makeup. (Oils from olive, coconut, and peanut are extracted without heat.)
I’m not making a connection here. It’s just an observation, with a dash of logic. But then again, I’m just the painter lady.