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I've got a few Asian recipes (e.g. Mongolian lamb and Singapore duck) that request only ⅛ teaspoon of sugar for a meal fit for 2 or 3 people. That feels too little to affect sweetness.

Are there particular ingredients common in Asian cuisine that require de-acidifying with sugar, or is the sugar used for another purpose?

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I'm guessing that's for adding the sweet to the sour. –  BaffledCook Feb 2 '12 at 7:08
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2 Answers 2

First, there are plenty of sour ingredients in Asian cooking, that are de-acidified by a little sugar. Tomato paste, peppers and soy are examples that come to mind.

Second, and this is the Zen-style answer, is that the sugar is to sweeten the dish a little. One teaspoon of sugar in a sauce is plenty sweet enough, especially if you're not used to having 6tsp of sugar in a can of Coke daily. Sweetness, like saltiness and spicyness, is something we get used to easily.

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+1 for the second paragraph! To the OP: you can demonstrate that to yourself by making something where it can easily be mixed in late (e.g. a sauce), and just trying it with and without the sugar. I think you'll find that a little bit of sweetness is a nice part of the flavor. (And the first teaspoon does a lot more than the 10th teaspoon.) –  Jefromi Feb 2 '12 at 16:59
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@jefromi I would have agreed with that for a whole teaspoon, but the OP talks about one eighth of a teaspoon, which is half a gram. There is probably more salt in this dish than sugar. –  rumtscho Feb 2 '12 at 18:07
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@rumtscho: Oops, I'm bad at reading! It might still be possible to taste the difference, though, and perhaps identify it as a difference in sweetness, even if the sweeter version doesn't taste sweet on its own. –  Jefromi Feb 2 '12 at 18:34
    
rumtscho is correct, just one eighth of a teaspoon for meals which have 12-16 ounces of meat plus vegetables. There are no tomatoes or peppers but soy sauce is common. Yet many other Asian recipes with soy don't have sweetness added. –  jontyc Feb 2 '12 at 23:17
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I can certainly taste the difference, that little bit of sugar is rather useful! Especially as I fry the food briefly on high heat which I guess might tend to caramelize that sugar. More sugar might make it too caramelized for some people. That said, normally I would use about half a tablespoon of sugar, but Singaporean duck and Mongolian lamb are already very sweet (due to their fat, and the marinate, I wouldn't want to make it significantly sweeter.)

Then again, I rarely have sugar. I don't have sugar in my coffee, my oats for breakfast have only half a teaspoon of honey, etcetera.

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