Living sugar-free in Southeast Asia

The quest for minimizing sugar in countries which are full of it

After a couple of months in Asia and a couple of cooking classes I can now truly say that eating completely sugar-free in Asia is an impossible mission. If I were to stick to my diet here for the full 100%, I probably wouldn’t be able to eat anything but bananas and peanuts.

Forget about whole-grain, fiber or low-carbing: refined rice or rice noodles are at the basis of most cuisines in Southeast Asia. Besides that, I’ve learned that most dishes, even the ones you wouldn’t expect it from, contain a couple of spoons full of sugar.

Of course I’m trying to follow my sugar-free diet as well as I can. I’ve resigned to eating white rice and sometimes white bread, but I stay away from overly sweet dishes and desserts – in any case after having lived sugar-free for 5 years, I am usually not able to eat anything quite so sweet anyway.

But what I’ve learned having eaten out twice a day for a couple of months and having done a cooking class in Thailand and in Cambodia, is that even most non-sweet main dishes, like Pad Thai, curry, (noodle) soups and fried vegetables usually contain (heaps of) added sugar.

An explanation of the three dishes we would prepare during the cooking class and their ingredients. Sugar plays a role in all of them.

Especially the Thai love their sugar. During my first cooking class in Thailand we prepared the famous Pad Thai, a red massaman curry and a cinnamon soup. Of the Pad Thai I knew it was rather sweet, but I didn’t quite realize it contained that much sugar. Pad Thai generally contains at least 4 different types of sugar from different sources. It is often made with a sweetend chili sauce (or: spicy liquid sugar), sweet soy sauce, sweetened fish sauce (or: fishy liquid sugar), and 3-4 tablespoons of pure sugar. The result is a sticky, sweet bunch of noodles with some spring onion and peanut on top. I would personally call it more a desert than a main dish.

Cooking up some food

The massaman curry also contained 1-2 tablespoons of sugar and a sweetened curry paste. With the cinnamon soup it was unfortunately the same story.

Curries are still your best bet for eating healthily in Asia. They generally contain only little sugar and many different vegetables.

In Laos and Cambodia the food is definitely less sweet than in Thailand. I was surprised to find, however, that even Cambodian food contains quite a bit of added sugar. During my Cambodian cooking class we prepared fish amok, a traditional Cambodian dish of steamed fish in coconut milk, green mango salad, fried spring rolls and a coconut dessert based on coconut milk, sugar and gelatin.

The dessert of course contained quite a bit of sugar, and because the teacher prepared it himself with us watching, I couldn’t secretly cheat on the amount of sugar in it. I tasted it afterwards and was surprised to find that it wasn’t as sweet as I had thought, and it was really quite tasty as it was sort of half-frozen. I’m already thinking how I can prepare my own version of it with agar agar and xylitol when I come back.

But even the filling of the spring rolls contained added sugar, the dressing for the green mango salad was largely composed of some kind of really sweet sauce and in the coconut milk for the fish amok we were also suppose to whisk in a bit of sugar.

Turning the springrolls…
The preparation of fresh coconut milk. Freshly grated coconut powder goes into the machine and is pressed so hard that the milk comes out.

The green mango salad and fish amok were also fantastic by the way. The green mango salad is basically a mix of sliced green unripe mango and sliced carrot. The fish for the amok is steamed and put in fresh coconut milk mixed with special amok paste and presented in a banana leaf. The coconut milk was the best I’d ever had: we had bought it on the market where they had freshly produced it for us by grating the inside of coconuts and pressing out the milk from the coconut meal.

I can’t wait to eat lots of whole-grain rice, whole-grain bread and salads with olive oil dressing once I get back home. But for now I stick to my diet as well as I can. There are of course a lot of ways to make sugar-free (or sugar-low) life in Asia a little easier. Stir-fried vegetables will generally be soaked in some sweet caramelized sauce, but just asking for the sauce to be left out or asking for boiled vegetables will generally work.

Making the amok paste

Smoothies will generally contain added sugar here, but you can always ask for a sugar-free smoothie. In the beginning I didn’t realize they normally use sweet milk (more sugar than milk, or: liquid white sugar), but after I realized that I usually ask for that to be left out as well. This will lead to the most amazing results. A lady in Cambodia made us a smoothie by blending a whole ripe juicy mango with a bit of ice. It must have been one of the most delicious smoothies I’ve ever had!

One of the most surprising things here is the coffee. We were really amazed to see that even though countries like Myanmar and Laos produce really good coffee, hotels and local coffee places will generally serve you a so-called 3-in-1 coffee, basically a mix of coffee, milk and sugar. A careful examination of the ingredient list of the 3-in-1 coffee revealed that it primarily contained sugar and fat, no real milk and only a little bit of coffee, often not even from Asia.

The best investment in healthy eating though comes from a 1.50 electric kettle we bought in Myanmar. After buying some other things like bowls, a cup, spoons, oatmeal and coffee, we now make our own porridge in our small portable kitchen with a “fresh” cup of black instant coffee. At least we can start the day fully sugar-free!

The Thakhek motorbike loop

The stunning landscapes of the famous loop

3 days, 2 people and 1 motorbike: we have just completed the famous Thakhek motorbike loop and I must say it exceeded all my expectations. Bear in mind that that is coming from a person who is sometimes difficult to impress, even at the sight of endless natural beauty. Don’t get me wrong. I love the outdoors and enjoy spending time in nature like nothing else. But it’s not like watching the sunset from the umptieth viewpoint is likely to make my blood flow faster or touch me emotionally.

The Thakhek loop was different. Perhaps it was the adrenaline from driving this powerful vehicle on the dusty and often unpaved roads of the Laotian countryside, but there were just so many points on the route that gave me goose bumps and made the hairs on my arms stand up.

In Thakhek, we stayed at the Villa Thakhek. There is a motorbike rental (PokemonGo) on site, but we decided to walk 40 minutes to the center of Thakhek where we heard there should be two cheaper rental places. Unfortunately all of their motorbikes were rented out, so we walked back 40 minutes to our hotel to find all the motorbikes rented except one. So we had little choice but to take it.

In the end I must admit I was quite happy with PokemonGo. We paid a whopping 120.000 KIP (or 14,50 USD) per day for the motorbike (including two helmets), but we did get a fully automatic and powerful Honda 125cc for that money which had no trouble carrying us over the steeper parts of the route and showed no signs of any technical issues.

The owner also allowed us to deposit 1 million KIP or 120 USD instead of our passport when I told him my passport was at the Vietnamese embassy in Vientiane. A lie, of course, but I find that this lie usually works quite well in Laos where almost all of the rental places demand you leave your passport with them for the duration of your rental.

The first day took us to Thalang. The road was not very impressive but there were a couple of sights on the way, including two caves. Laos is quite typical in the sense that you will soon find yourself having to pay small amounts of money for the most ridiculous reasons. For example, most caves and waterfalls in Laos have an entree fee of anywhere between $0.50 and $5, which is sometimes used to help maintain the sight, but sometimes just seems to pass to the guy in the hammock hanging around all day collecting the fees. At the first cave, they had even invented a rule that my girlfriend had to wear a traditional Lao skirt in the cave, which she had to rent for 3000 KIP or $0.40.

The second day started with a 15 kilometer stretch back where we came from. I had slipped the day before on some stones besides the road and we realised in the evening that we had lost the spring that keeps in place the standard of the bike. So we drove back for a bit and found the spring along the road and fixed it back into place with the help of two lovely around-the-world-cyclists we met along the way (check out their blog here)!

The mystical lakes with trees growing out of them

Armed with the excitement of having fixed our motorbike by ourselves, the second day turned out to be absolutely fabulous. First, meandering through the mountains, we were surprised by several small pools of water with trees growing out of them, which looked like landscapes from another planet. Later, the road became ever more quiet, the Vietnamese and Thai trucks which had dominated the road on day one disappeared and the landscape surrounding the road changed to long stretches of red clay and sand bordered by tall rocky mountains.

Thaklek Loop Dirt Road
One of the typical red roads of the Thakhek loop

We decided to drive to the cool pool, on what was one of the most impressive roads I’ve ever seen, a long red stretch of sand with motorbikes going back and forth, leading to a mountain range which seemed to be appearing out of nothing. The cool pool itself was a beautiful, still, green-blue pool.

We finished our day by driving to Konglor Village where we quickly found a cheap guesthouse and met the two cyclists again who had helped us in the morning and took the shorter but much more difficult road to reach Konglor from the other side.

On the third day, we got up early to be at the famous Konglor Cave shortly after it opens at 7.30 am. I would really recommend anyone to go and see the Konglor Cave and especially early in the morning. Some people say it’s not worth visiting or nothing special, but for me it was one of the best things I’ve ever seen. The Konglor Cave is about 7,5 km long and it’s very wide and high. A trip through the cave to the other side of the mountain takes about 45 minutes. The cave is completely dark as there seems to be no power in the village between 6 am and 6 pm. Our boat was the first one in on the day and I must say the drive through the cave was one of the first times in my life that I was just lost for words. The ancient Greeks apparently based their myth of their underworld on a cave, and going into the Konglor Cave I could see why: it is truly like entering into another world, void of light and sound (except for the loud motor of our boat).

The remainder of the loop was slightly disappointing, the viewpoint near the limestone peaks on route 8 towards route 13 being the absolute and beautiful highlight. The rest of route 8 was being repaved, the smell of warm and fresh tar continuously in our faces. Route 13 was perhaps even worse, and I spent the last 100 km going 60-70 km/h between trucks and other cars to make it back to Thakhek before 6pm, since we figured out the light on our bike didn’t work.

Limestone peaks from the viewpoint on route 8

Just before Thakhek we were stopped by the corrupt Lao police trying to make an extra couple of bucks off tourists doing the loop. It was easy enough to get out of that one though. He demanded 50000 KIP (6 USD) for not having an international drivers license and we pretended we only had 24500 KIP. He gave us back the 4500 KIP, put the 20000 in his pocket and told us next time this wouldn’t suffice!

Backpacking or trailpacking?

After seeing some of the events we signed up for on Facebook, a good friend asked us whether we are actually still backpacking or if we decided to do trailpacking. It’s true that a good part of the first month and a half of our trip has been dictated by two runs we signed up for, the 12km trail run in Kalaw, Myanmar, and the half marathon in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Both runs were awesome in their own right even though completely different. The Kalaw trail run was very hilly and technical and I ended up ankle-deep in the mud at times. Since it had rained the night before, some places were so muddy that running or even walking had become impossible and I lost a few seconds here and there trying to get my feet out of the mud. In any case, I came in 5th so I must say that I carry great memories of the run. At the end I ran as fast as I could in the hope to catch someone in front of me, but later I learned the number 4 had finished about 4 minutes earlier than me. In hindsight I must say that I found it slightly pricey for what was offered: there was water and Heineken beer at the finish line (at 9 in the morning) but no fruit or other food and breakfast at the hotel where the finish line was was horribly overpriced at 15,000 kyat or about 10 euro. Luckily we met a lovely Texan-Spanish couple before the race who gave us some sugar-free sports nutrition, which helped a lot and provided us with enough energy to survive until we were back in the hotel.

The Chiang Mai half marathon was completely different. The course was completely flat, making it easier to build up the race and keep a steady rhythm throughout. The organisation was quite smooth, everything started nicely on time and, since it is Thailand, at the finish line there was an abundance of free foods to refill the carbs and electrolytes, ranging from rice with omelette (or meat) to bananas, and dumplings to coconut water. I finished in 1.54.22, which was my best time on a half marathon so far and, especially considering I had a fever the night before and had slept only 4 hours (since I had to be there at 4 in the morning), I was quite pleased with the result.

Another big difference with Kalaw was that it was obvious that running and sports is actually way more developed in Thailand than in Myanmar. Most participants in Chiang Mai were Thai, whereas most participants in Kalaw were expats or travellers. But perhaps that is not so strange considering that 60-70% of the people in Myanmar live from farming and many earn less than 100 a month. I suppose that leaves little time for leisure.

Travelling from run to run provides you with a totally different dynamics than travelling freely without any plan. I suppose that knowing that you have to be somewhere in a certain place at a certain time gives you a goal to work towards and mentally it can be nice to know: ok I know that on this date I’m gonna have to be in this place. At the same time, it does restrict you a bit and we did have to spend a little more money to fly from Mandalay to Chiang Mai on the evening before the run.

It’s hard to say what’s better. I suppose it is actually the most difficult to have the freedom of not having to go or be anywhere. But perhaps this is the best exercise that one can get: an exercise that makes you wonder what it is you actually want and where it is you want to go. I guess I’m still in the process of finding this out. But I do know the occasional run has got to be part of it.

Mango raspberry ice cream

Super easy two ingredient mango raspberry ice cream

The people at Froothie sent me their new Optimum G2.1 Platinum Series blender to test for a month. Now I already own another one of Froothie’s awesome blenders, the powerful Optimum 9400, but the new optimum G2.1 Platinum Series blender is even more powerful, and has an electronic display with several programmes and the option to program your blender to blend for a certain time at a certain speed.

I will post an extensive review of the Optimum G2.1 Platinum Series later on, but in the coming days and weeks I will be releasing some of the recipes I prepared with Froothie’s new blender.

The frozen mango and raspberry in Froothie's Optimum G2.1 Platinum series blender
The frozen mango and raspberry in Froothie’s Optimum G2.1 Platinum series blender

The first one, mango raspberry ice cream, is already one of my favourites. Why?

  • It only has two ingredients, mango and raspberry
  • It is extremely quick and easy to prepare (yes, I get lazy too sometimes)
  • The natural sweetness and creaminess of the mango combines exquisitely well with the specific taste and beautiful bright colours of the raspberry
  • Overall you get a super easy, tasty, beautiful and refreshing ice cream which will not fail to impress your guests
Your beautiful mango raspberry ice cream will not fail to impress your guests
Your beautiful mango raspberry ice cream will not fail to impress your guests

How do you prepare the ice cream? Well, it depends a little on the ingredients you are going to use. The Optimum G2.1 Platinum series has a preset menu with a sorbet function, which is definitely the easiest option, but I find it works best when you add some liquid, like vegetable milk or some lemon juice, to your frozen fruit or you wait a while until the fruit starts to melt a little. It also works better when you put a lot than when you use less fruit.

Bowl of mango raspberry ice cream
Bowl of mango raspberry ice cream

Since I didn’t have a lot of time and opted for the two ingredient ice cream, I find the following method works best:

  • Put the frozen fruit in your blender, close the blender (important! ;)), and wait for a couple of minutes until the fruit softens slightly. Then shortly press pulse a couple of times to shatter your fruit to little pieces.
Optimum G2.1 Platinum series with shattered fruit
Optimum G2.1 Platinum series with shattered fruit
  • Use your tamper or spatula to push everything down from the sides, and blend on a slower speed, like 1 or 2, to get a nice smooth ice cream. You might need to stop blending from time to time to push down your ice cream with a spatula.
Mango raspberry ice cream
Mango raspberry ice cream
Optimum
Mango raspberry ice cream
Print Recipe
Two ingredient ice cream without added sugar
Servings Prep Time
10 people 5 minutes
Servings Prep Time
10 people 5 minutes
Optimum
Mango raspberry ice cream
Print Recipe
Two ingredient ice cream without added sugar
Servings Prep Time
10 people 5 minutes
Servings Prep Time
10 people 5 minutes
Ingredients
Servings: people
Instructions
  1. If you prefer using the sorbet function on your blender, I would a bit of vegetable milk or yoghurt and press "sorbet". If you don't have a sorbet function, or you are making the two ingredient version, transfer the frozen mango and raspberry to your blender. You can still add some vegetable milk or yoghurt. This smoothens the ice cream a little bit and lowers the temperature of the frozen fruit, making the blending go a little bit faster. But you should also be able to make it without.
  2. The best thing I find is to wait for a few minutes to let your frozen fruit warm up just a little bit, and then press pulse a couple of times until the fruit has shredded to small pieces as you can see on the picture in the post.
  3. Now scrape down the pieces of fruit with your tamper or another blender-friendly tool, like a spatula, and mix.
  4. Wait for another minute, then blend for a minute or so on a low speed, like 1 or 2. Depending on how frozen your fruit still is and how much fruit you put in your blender (the more the easier), you might have to interrupt this and scrape or push down some fruit with your spatula or tamper.
  5. After a while, your fruit should be soft enough to blend to smooth ice cream. If not, just wait another while and keep scraping and push down the ice cream until it blends to smooth and soft ice cream.
  6. Serve ice cold, possibly with some pieces of mango or raspberry on top or on the side.

Lentil burgers with champignons and bell pepper

Tasty lentil burgers with left-overs!

Often people think that foodbloggers and cooks produce something highly sophisticated and culinary on a day to day basis when cooking for themselves. But maybe especially when you cook so much and and so often, you find yourself in front of an empty fridge with some left-over champignons and pepper in it, and a cupboard with just a bag of lentils and some buckwheat flour in it. Sometimes even foodbloggers and cooks are overcome with laziness or tiredness and they don’t feel like shopping or preparing complicated stuff. And when that happens, for me there is only one option: vegan burgers!

Lentil burgers with champignons and bell pepper
Lentil burgers with champignons and bell pepper

The beauty of burgers is that:

  • you can make them with just about any vegetable
  • you just need some lentils, chickpeas or flour to make them into bakable burgers
  • you can easily make them tasty with ingredients which don’t go bad very fast, like soy sauce, sundried tomatoes, bouillon, salt and pepper
  • they are tasty and quick to prepare
  • you can add all your left-overs
Lentil burgers with champignons and bell pepper
Lentil burgers with champignons and bell pepper

These burgers are made with champignons, bell pepper and lentils and a bit of tamari. But feel free to add all your other left-overs as well!

Lentil burgers with champignons and bell pepper
Print Recipe
Servings Prep Time
10 people 10 minutes
Cook Time
15 minutes
Servings Prep Time
10 people 10 minutes
Cook Time
15 minutes
Lentil burgers with champignons and bell pepper
Print Recipe
Servings Prep Time
10 people 10 minutes
Cook Time
15 minutes
Servings Prep Time
10 people 10 minutes
Cook Time
15 minutes
Ingredients
Servings: people
Instructions
  1. Bring the lentils to boil. They will take around 45 minutes, so reserve some time for it.
  2. Meanwhile, cut the champignons and bell pepper in small pieces and fry them in a frying pan.
  3. When the lentils are ready, blend half of them together with half of the champignons and pepper, olive oil and tamari. Blend till you get a porridge-like mass.
  4. Transfer the mixture to a bowl, add the rest of the lentils and part of the veggies (you can leave the rest of the veggies for decoration, or add them), and knead/mash.
  5. Add some buckwheat flour. The quantity will depend on how wet the mixture is, so you might need to use less or more of it. The end result needs to be a dough-like mixture that you can easily roll nice balls from.
  6. Form the mixture into balls with your hands and flatten these with your hand to form burgers. Fry them on a reasonably high fire in a bit of olive oil on both sides.