Sugar Talk Sugar Talk
Authentic Thai food and beverages depend on pure sugars for success
Sugar is an essential part of Thai cuisine. From authentic food and drink to modern interpretations and fusions, the presence of sweetness is never far away. With Thailand, our next stop on our ‘around the world’ series. boasting some of the most dynamic combinations of hot, cold, sweet and sour, the use of pure sugars is vital in its ability to marry together complex flavours and bring sweetness to dishes.
A little history
Did you know the origin of sugar in Thailand is still debated to this day? Common consensus points to the mid-Ayutthaya period of 1351 to 1767 when new confectionary was introduced to the royalty of the time. Interestingly, research shows that sugar at this time was brought to Thailand by none other than the Portuguese!
In the past, Thai dishes and beverages predominantly made use of sugar from palm or coconut trees. In modern times, things are more diverse; contemporary Thai recipes make use of a variety of sugars including granulated sugar and unrefined options like muscovado sugar.
With palm and coconut sugar forming the backbone of traditional Thai cooking, sugarcane has also been used for many years in specific recipes and is known in the country as ‘ngope oy’ or ‘namtan oy’.
Pad Thai: The spectacular national dish of Thailand
Some recipes are so influential and delicious that they reach other countries and embed themselves in their towns and cities. For many in the west, Pad Thai is a familiar entry on many restaurant menus, and for good reason! Rich, sweet and merged with the contrasting textures and flavours of vegetables and peanuts, this national dish is a perfect example of Thai cuisine.
Interestingly, the selection of Pad Thai as a national dish was in part due to food shortages during World War 2. Lowered production and widespread flooding left the Thai government seeking a way to reduce the consumption of rice. With rice noodles using significantly less rice than just the grain itself, the cooking of Pad Thai was encouraged across the country as an economical and cheap alternative to rice-based recipes.
While variations abound, Pad Thai is mainly made from rice noodles, egg, fish sauce, tamarind paste, garlic, palm sugar, wedges of lime and a sprinkle of peanuts. Other common ingredients include bamboo shoots, onions, beans and your choice of protein. While palm sugar is commonly used, modern recipes often call for brown sugar which is more easily found and able to mix its rich molasses flavour with the strong taste of the fish sauce.
Floating lotus: Bua Loy Nam King
Fully titled ‘floating lotus in ginger syrup’, this intriguing Thai dessert makes use of rice balls floating in – you guessed it- a syrup. At a local level, there’s a huge amount of variation in Bua Loy Nam King; some recipes make use of a coconut milk-based sauce, whereas others such as the one we’re listing here draw on the spicy, sweet flavours of a thinner ginger sauce.
For a ginger sauce version of this recipe, it’s all about leveraging the deep and rich molasses flavour of brown sugar. The boiling water that is used to steam the rice balls is combined with brown sugar and slices of ginger before being heated to reduce down into a delicious and fragrant syrup.
As you’ll start to see and appreciate as you explore Thai cooking, Bua Loy Nam King combines spicy and sweet flavours into one dish – a classic example of Thai cooking principles.
Roti Gluay: Thai banana pancakes
If you visit Thailand, chances are you’ll be somewhere close to a roti stand. This snack is ubiquitous across the country and is a favoured treat for locals and tourists alike. Fillings abound, with your nearest vendor likely to offer you a dizzying selection, including fruit and chocolate.
Using that favoured roti as the delivery method for delicious, sweet banana, the Roti Gluay is a sugar bomb comprised of a thick sauce made with granulated sugar and sweetened condensed milk. The roti themselves are fried in oil until crispy and delicious before being flooded with sauce and filled or covered with banana slices. And if all those calories weren’t quite enough, many recipes call for a piece of butter to melt over the roti before cutting. Rich and wonderful.
This is a dish that is especially popular in the South of Thailand, but it’s so prevalent in the many stalls and vendors found in towns and cities that you’ll always be able to lay your hands on a sweet roti with a little work and a question or two.
Cha Yen: Thai milk tea
Another famous export now enjoyed worldwide, Cha Yen is a milky, sweetened tea that is usually orange in colour and filled with the sweet and chewy surprise of tapioca pearls. A regular part of life to citizens and a wonderful surprise to visitors, Cha Yen is marked by a unique and distinct flavour and fragrant sweetness made possible in part by the use of brown sugar.
The distinct taste of Cha Yen is drawn in the main from the tea mix used in its creation. The brand most commonly associated with the drink is ‘Number One Thai Tea Mix’, or ‘cha tra mue Thai tea’. It’s this blend of tea that gives Cha Yen its fragrant smell and its signature orange colour.
And there you have it: A small selection of the use of pure sugars in Thai cuisine. This ingredient is critical for its ability to enhance flavour, change mouthfeel and adjust other properties of recipes and confectionary such as freezing and crystallisation points.