There’s a Simpsons episode where Homer happens upon an overturned sugar truck in the middle of the road. He and Bart shovel the pile into the back of the car and Homer decides to run a sugar business from his backyard. America’s giant sweet tooth is illustrated in Homer’s Cuban-accented soliloquy, “In America, first you get the sugar, then you get the power, then you get the women.” (A line borrowed from the Al Pacino drama, Scarface.)
Our obsession with sugar is seen on the aisles of packaged cookies, breads, cereals, canned vegetables. Heck, just about every processed food. But it isn’t just American food that’s injected with sugar; in Asian cuisine, it is an important ingredient used in savory dishes to enhance the flavors of fish, seafood, meats and vegetables. Americans might not sprinkle a tablespoon of granulated sugar onto their rib eyes, but the Chinese add sugar to their beef stir-fries.
With the exception of Japanese food, most Asian cuisines use sugar profusely in their cooking. Thai food tops the list for sweetness. Everything from pad thai to grilled shrimp has that ingredient that makes Thai food so distinctive — sugar.
In Thai cooking, palm sugar or coconut sugar is used instead of traditional cane sugar. Sap is collected from the trees, boiled in woks and reduced to a sticky sugar. This is then whipped and dropped into containers or cellophane to set. The end result varies since cooking times are different: The product can be either beige or dark brown, soft or hard. Palm sugar has a darker color and carries a smokier aroma, while coconut sugar is lighter, but both can be used interchangeably in recipes.
Knowing about the high sugar content in Thai food, I still enjoy a good Thai meal now and then, and at Janya Thai Kitchen in lower Pacific Heights, you can sample delicious, albeit sweet, Thai dishes.
Remember those feet walking by on Cheer’s? Well, that’s the kind of scene you get at Janya. The dining room is below street level, but not so much that you feel like you’re eating in a cave. The charming, earthy dining room is lit and heated by the sun, while fresh roses adorn linen-covered tables. The comfortable environment is also enhanced by the friendly staff and exceptional service.
My taste buds got a jumpstart from the contrasting flavors of Mieng Kum ($6.95). Uniformly minced ginger, jalapeno peppers, red onions, lemon, roasted peanuts, toasted coconut and dried shrimp were served with raw spinach on a wooden palette-like dish. All the ingredients are rolled up in a spinach leaf and drizzled with a tangy sauce made of shrimp paste, ground peanuts, garlic, onions and fish sauce. The lemon rind was refreshing for a warm night, and the dried shrimp and toasted coconut was an unexpected but nice surprise.
Garlic Salmon ($10.95) featured a grilled marinated salmon fillet with minced garlic, red pepper and basil wrapped in banana leaves and served with a sweet and spicy lemon garlic sauce. Crisp, sautéed broccoli, onions, carrots and red bell peppers were served on the side and complemented the delicate fish, which was cooked perfectly.
I was a bit disappointed with the Goong Ma Kuer ($8.95), prawns sautéed with eggplant, chili, garlic, red bell peppers and sweet basil, because several of the prawns weren’t very fresh. The first one I popped into my mouth bursted with flavor, but later, I ate one that was soft and mealy. Aside from the prawns, the eggplant was creamy yet firm, and the dish wasn’t swimming in a pool of oil.
A must-have is the fragrant and addictive Pumpkin Curry ($7.95), which had slices of tender chicken breast, cubes of sweet and velvety pumpkin (my guess is kabocha squash) and basil leaves swimming in red, coconut milk-infused curry sauce. This dish was amazing. The flavors were perfectly balanced between the fragrant coconut milk and sweet pumpkin. If you’re going to save your calories and carbs for a splurge, save it for this dish.
If you have Thai food for lunch or dinner, don’t go having a handful of cookies or a chocolate bar an hour later. Moderation is key and a little bit of sugar goes a long way.
Janya Thai Kitchen
1494 California St. (at Larkin St.)
San Francisco, CA 94109
Hours: Lunch: Mon. – Tues; Thu. – Sat.: 11:30 a.m. – 4 p.m.;
Dinner: Sun. – Thu.: 4 p.m. – 10 p.m.; Fri. – Sat.: 4 p.m. – 10:30 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers: $4.95 – $8.95; soups and salads: $5.95 – $8.95; entrees: $5.50 –$10.95
Credit cards accepted.