Sticky rice accounts for 80 to 90 percent of the rice consumed in Laos. It is opaque rather than semi-transparent like plain rice. High in gluten, it is the staple diet of many Tai and Kmhmu’ people. In the uplands, much work goes into polishing the rice which is unfortunate as many essential vitamins and minerals lacking in local diets could be provided if the bran were left on the grains. There are many varieties, both old, traditional seeds and new, higher-yielding ones. The latter have improved food security in subsistence economy villages and added income when yields are large enough for a portion to be sold. However, they may need more chemicals and be less resistant to drought, disease and pests.
Sticky rice is the most important crop for subsistence economies in the hills of northern Laos even when it is not traded.
It is grown dry on steep, upland slash and burn fields, interplanted with crops such as maize, cucumber, chilli, taro and sesame. Other sticky rice varieties are grown in wet paddy fields.
The rice must be soaked before steaming. It is usually cooked in a traditional bamboo or wooden steamer above a special aluminium pot. Once steamed, the rice is allowed to breathe by being stirred and turned over with a wooden paddle. Turning, allowing the steam to escape, prevents an overly sticky rice. A special woven bamboo basket is used for storing and serving sticky rice. The rice is eaten with the fingers. The diner presses the rice in the right palm to form a small ball to scoop up accompanying food. Dip the ball into chilli paste or use it, along with the thumb, to grab a piece of food. See recipe for Sticky rice for full cooking instructions.
Sticky rice is available in supermarkets and Asian suppliers. Buy young rice which requires less time to cook. Overseas Lao prefer Japanese sticky rice to the long grain Thai sticky rice because the Japanese variety has smaller grains like that at home.