Living sugar-free in Southeast Asia

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

A sugar-free diet in Asia: mission impossible

Living sugar-free on holiday? After a couple of months in Asia and several cooking classes I can now truly say that eating 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.

A cuisine full of simple carbs

Forget about whole-grain, fiber or low carb diets: 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. Luckily, I don’t have to stick to a diabetic diet, but if I did, I would have a hard time here.

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.

A cooking class in Thailand: added sugar revealed

Living sugar-free seems difficult especially in Thailand. 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 sweetened 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 dessert than a main dish.

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. If you want to make your own massaman curry by the way, it is easy enough to find excellent sugar-free curry paste online. The people at Leena Spices make a high-class and 100% natural massaman curry powder.

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

A cooking class in Cambodia

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.

Delicious fresh coconut milk from the market

Fresh coconut milk being prepared on a market in Cambodia
The preparation of fresh coconut milk. Freshly scraped 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,  bread and salads with olive oil 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.

Delicious smoothies without added sugars

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). After I realized this, I usually asked 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!

Life without sugar: buy an electric travel kettle

One of the most surprising things here is the coffee. Countries like Myanmar and Laos produce really good coffee. However, 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 reveals that this primarily contains sugar and fat. It doesn’t contain any real milk and only a little bit of coffee, often not even from Asia.

The best investment in healthy eating and living sugar-free comes from a $2 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! I really recommend buying an electric travel kettle. You might have to pay a little more than $2 for it, but it will be well worth your money. There are even foldable travel kettles which will save you a lot of space.

Author: Jonathan

Foodblogger, translator, webmaster, cook. Passionate about natural food, languages, cycling and travels.

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