I often get this kind of response when I bring up eating “sticky rice”. I quickly see that the person I’m talking to is not thinking of the same delicious staple that I am. Often Americans associate “sticky rice” to the rice that might be found at a typical American-Chinese restaurant, i.e. rice that is clumped together, or in other words, rice that has not been cooked with butter or oil or has been parboiled like Uncle Ben’s.
For anyone who has traveled to Northern and Northeastern Thailand, and/or Laos, “sticky rice”, a direct translation from the Thai or Lao kao niao ข้าวเหนียว/ເຂົ້າຫນຽວ is the primary staple starch accompaniment to the region’s salads, grilled meats, and intensely flavored dips. I already have put up several posts on things to be eaten with sticky rice, for example: green papaya salads, fermented fish dip, prahok pork dip, boiled greens with ribs, sour beef soup, etc.
Southeast Asian sticky rice is a long-grain glutinous rice that is quite different from standard rices for boiling. Glutinous rices are easy to spot in the market (if they are in clear bags, anyway) due to the opaque white color of the rice (see image below). When looking for Southeast Asian-style sticky rice, look for rice produced in Thailand, often labeled as “sweet rice”:
Glutinous rice is also common in East Asia–although the grain is shorter–for special items such as the bamboo leaf-wrapped zongzi 粽子, or the dish popular in Taiwan, youfan 油饭. In Japan it is the key ingredient in the famous mochi 餅 (もち) cakes.
Back to the Southeast Asian staple… in Laos and Thailand people generally steam the rice by suspending it in a basket over boiling water. The finished product is rice that is just gluey enough that it can be manipulated and used to dip to absorb juices, and sturdy enough that it can be used to scoop up food. Needless to say, it is generally eaten with the hands.
If you haven’t tried it, you should. It is excellent with grilled things and salads (essential, in fact). I have only cooked sticky rice in a basket steamer (that can be aquired from any Southeast Asian market), but you can steam it in a regular steamer too. If you plan to use a regular steamer, I’d suggest wrapping the rice in a muslin cloth so that you can flip it to ensure even cooking halfway through.
Here are some images of the cooking process at our house. The basic process is to soak the rice overnight or for several hours, and then steam above water until cooked. You should flip the rice halfway or 3/4 of the way through to ensure even cooking. It is cooked when it looks more translucent and when it is not too hard and it doesn’t get stuck in your teeth:
Beyond eating the rice as an accompaniment to food, sticky rice is also prepared as an important ingredient in Lao/Thai cooking.
Kao kua ข้าวคั่ว/ເຂົ້າຂົ້າ is an essential crunchy and nutty addition to laap ลาบ/ລາບ (sour minced meat salads), and steak salad (i.e. “beef waterfall”). This ingredient is easily prepared at home. Most recipes simply instruct you to dry-fry raw unsoaked sticky rice until it is golden brown, and then crush the rice in a mortar and pestle or cut it up in a spice mill. See here for an example of the usual process for making kao kua at padaek.com.
I prepared kao kua by another method recently, following Andy Ricker’s recipe in his Pok Pok cookbook. He suggests soaking the rice first for some hours before dry-frying at very low heat for a very long time. The result is nutty and crunchy. Recently I also used it as a breading on deep-fried filet of sole:
Kao beua ข้าวเบือ/ເຂົ້າເບືອ is another key use as cooking ingredient (not pictured here). This is used to thicken stews, or to thicken steamed banana-leaf parcels. To make this, simply soak sticky rice for at least 1/2 hour and then pound it in a mortar until ground.
Finally, cooked sticky rice is a common ingredient in fermentation to make delicious and fruity rice wine. I bought some yeast cakes for that purpose, but have yet to have a successful batch. I’ll probably post on that some day if I can get it right.