Foreign Flavors

The Origins of: Sticky Rice

Pick it up with your hands. Yeah, go ahead- get in there. That’s it. Now, roll it into a ball. Nice! Okay, you see that red sauce that is chop full of chilis? Dip that glutinous ball into that sauce and prepare to have your mind blown. Flavors, texture, pure joy. That is what occurs every time I eat sticky rice or Khao Niao. Before coming to Thailand the only rice I had ever been exposed to was that of chinese food, sushi, and the occasional rice pilaf. Never in my life would I have thought I’d be saying sentences like, “Dude, you gotta try this rice!” or even worse, “ The sticky rice in my area is so much better than yours”(which btw- #facts, check it). In two years I’ve learned how to make, serve, and devour…well, mainly devour sticky rice. But like, why am I telling you all this? Cuz sticky rice is bomb, that’s why. Let’s discuss.

Where did it come from?

Sticky rice, or glutinous rice is a specific strain of rice. The grain itself was developed in China over two thousand years ago. DAMN! That’s some old rice. It is a major type of rice cultivated in Southeast and Eastern Asia. Accounting for at least 85% of Laos rice production, the strain has been recorded in this area for the past 1,100 years. Talk about historical foods.

Over time, new and improved rice versions were introduced into the Southeast Asian region. Though most of these rices were rejected because glutinous rice just tasted better. Culturally, sticky rice was prefered and there was no swaying the population even though the scientifically manipulated rices provided for better yield and were more environmentally friendly. People were all like, “Nah, brah- that rice is sh*t.”

So, eventually a ‘new and improved’ version of sticky rice was introduced and people were like, I mean I guess that’s fine. So now the improved strain accounts for over seventy percent of the glutinous rice production along the Mekong River in Laos. That’s a lot of rice, yo.

Let’s talk science. The glutinous strain of rice is a total mutant. Like ninja turtle mutant- except less ‘bro’-esk. This sticky mess is a mutant in its waxy gene only, which sounds neither appealing nor delicious. So this ‘waxy gene’ basically stops the formation of a specific starch. Said starch is called “amylose” and without it the rice gets its prized sticky texture. According to reports and scientists doing research stuff, I mean they probably did more eating that actual reporting- I digress…this mutant trait was loved by everyone and people clung onto it trying to recreate it year after year.

How is it prepared?

Glutinous rice, when prepared is harder to digest than other strains, cuz it’s lacking that starch, ya mean. It also makes you feel full longer or so they say. I mean to most people it makes them feel full longer. For me- I could eat unlimited amounts and the only side effect is very weird and vivid dreams. Don’t ask. Moving on, this section is entitled ‘How is it prepared?’ soooo maybe we should do a step by step? Y’all ready? OK! 

  1. Attain glutinous rice, rice steamer, and water.
  2. Measure amount of rice to water ratio (between 1/2 to 1 cup of water to 1 cup of rice). Attn: Make a lot.
  3. Throw that combo in a pot.
  4. Soak that rice overnight.
  5. Strain rice through a colander or the Thai traditional woven bamboo basket that you have laying around.

    Yeah, this thing. It’s probably in your pantry- dig around a bit.
  6. Wrap it up, I mean like in a cloth you freak.
  7. Steam that rice. Ow, is it hot in here? (about 15 min on each side– DO NOT OVERCOOK!*) You guys know how to steam right? I guess it depends on my audience, but just to be precautious- steaming means that you don’t put it in the water. We clear?
  8. Pair with something tasty & devour.

*If you do it right, the rice will be sticky and delicious, but if you do it wrong, it can be mushy, watery, and just plain gross. So, just like…do it right.

At least in Southeast Asia, everyone and their mom knows how to make sticky rice. Literally though, because recipes are usually passed down through the matriarch. I watched my host grandmother act as Rice Master and teach her two granddaughters the way of the mutant rice. Just as I participated when she attempted to teach me for the first time (notice there have been multiple attempts), she knew exactly what she was doing. Such precision. Such grace. She the master- I the grasshopper, who was running around like a chicken with her head cut off trying to catch a fly in her palm. Women from a young age know how to make rice of any variety here. Whereas I didn’t understand how to use a rice cooker until my 26th year on earth.

The food culture here is definitely passed down via the female gender. Though the cultivation of the grain itself depends mainly on the male dominated farmer community. From whomever the recipes are taught, they all know the preparation by heart, and could probably do it blindfolded. That, I would pay to see and probably has taken place on some Thai game show. Where do I sign up?

What is it eaten with?

What isn’t is eaten with, really? I mean I’ve had sticky rice with almost every flavor combination. Sweet, salty, sour, spicy- you name it, we eat it. Each country has its own recipes that have been passed down, altered and improved over the years. They have perfected these recipes by trial and error- but mainly by eating. Since I personally know of the Thai sticky rice recipes, let’s start there and then move onto uncharted territory. 

Thailand
  1. Sticky rice, literally any grilled meat, and somtum (papaya salad): This is my personal favorite and the one that I eat most frequently. My town is known for its amazing grilled chicken. Without sticky rice, the accompanying spicy sauce, and bountiful papaya salad…what would become of the chicken? Would people just eat it alone? I don’t know and I don’t care to find out.

2. Mango sticky rice: This is a popular dish to try when coming to Thailand for the first time. It is famous with tourists for good reason. The sweet, ripe mango placed beautifully aside sweet coconut sticky rice with overly sweetened coconut milk is to die for. Yay carbs! I don’t know how many grams of sugar are in that and I don’t care to find out.

3. Naem or sour-fermented pork skinless sausage: What a sentence. Sticky rice is one of the main ingredients in this traditional meat product. These Thai sausages vary depending on the region but all include sticky rice in their recipe. They are typically served aside a variety of veggies, ginger root, and chili peppers. I don’t know what else is in those sausages and I don’t care to find out.

4. Khao lam: Sticky rice that is mixed together with sugar (duh.) and coconut cream then pressed into bamboo shoots of different sizes and lengths. Sometimes extra surprises like beans, bananas, or a weird cream filling are added. I don’t know what the filling is and I don’t care to find out.

Would ya just look at that?

5. Khao chi: Sticky rice that is pressed into patties. Those patties are then coated with egg and grilled. This recipe is especially present in my region and is realllllly effin’ good. That is all.

There are literally so many more Thai sticky rice recipes that I could write an article on that alone, so I’m gonna stop and move on now. #sorrynotsorry

Laos

Laos recipes are pretty similar to Thailand’s. However, Laotians normally consume sticky rice with a main dish, no desserts up in here. I just want to mention that in both countries, sticky rice that is served with meals are usually put into these little bamboo baskets that are super cute and look like this:

China, Korea, Japan

I am bulking these countries together because I am super lazy and they all really like rice cakes. In China, they make rice flour for dumplings and like to ferment it too, which is cool. But like honestly, from everything that I have read about sticky rice recipes in these Asian countries- it was all about the rice cake. Now- I’m not talking about Quaker Oats rice cakes that are flavored and processed and sh*t. These are real, nice rice cakes. How many times can I write ‘rice cake’ in one paragraph? Apparently five.

Other countries like Indonesia and The Philippines love makin’ those sweet sugary treats with sticky rice. Some even love savory treats too. I don’t know man, the point is that Asian countries grow, make and eat a ton of sticky rice. Did I mention it’s bomb? Cuz it is and you guys over in the U.S. should probably step up your sticky rice game. Quaker Oats Apple Cinnamon rice cakes for 60 calories or less doesn’t count. Just stop.

Who eats it?

Everyone. Every. one. Everyone who’s anyone eats sticky rice. But let’s get historical. Gotta cover all my bases. In ze past, its purpose was culturally, environmentally, and financially based- sticky rice was eaten by farmers who needed to stay full in belly and full in energy. The way of the sticky rice has developed an entire way of eating in the Isaan region of Thailand. One of the reasons why the glutinous strain is so popular in Isaan and Laos is that the region is very dry and less water is needed to cultivate the grain. Woahhhhh, climate facts. 

Each region and country for that matter tailored their sticky rice recipes to their particular taste and ability. Where sticky rice is used in main dishes in Isaan and Laos, the product is used for mainly sweets and desserts in other places. Rice in general is a huge cash crop. It is grown year round and is exported to countries all over the world. Sticky rice is no exception. The product is grown, processed, shipped, sold and eaten daily- often simultaneously. 

Now, I’m exasperated. Go get yourself some sticky rice, cuz I know I am.


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