Sticky rice is Laos’ staple food, accounting for two-thirds of its rice consumption. There are many varieties, both old, traditional seeds and new, higher yielding varieties developed to improve food security in subsistence economy villages. Some sticky rice is grown dry on steep upland slash and burn fields. Other varieties are grown in wet paddy fields. Non-mechanized rice production is very labour intensive, making every grain of rice precious. When Pawn was going on a three-month study trip to America, his chief concern was whether sticky rice was available and, if it were not, how he would survive without it. His concern mirrors that of many Lao travelling outside of their country.
Preparing sticky rice is very easy and fail safe if it is soaked long enough and if the steamer insert does not touch the boiling water below it. A most important step in preparation is to free the steam from the finished, cooked rice by prodding and flattening it with a paddle or spatula.
How to prepare sticky rice
Step 1: washing and soaking
Place the raw sticky rice in a bowl. Allow ½ – 1 cup of uncooked rice per person. Count on Asian diners eating more rice than Westerners. Briefly wash the rice to rinse away any husks or impurities. Do not over wash. Cover the rice with at least 2 cm (1 in) of water. Let it soak 6 hours.
The long soaking is essential, especially if the rice is old. Don’t try to shortcut it, or the rice will be starchy and lumpy, no matter how long it is steamed. If time is limited, the rice may be soaked in hot water for 2 hours. With any less time, however, it is impossible to cook sticky rice; substitute long grain, non-glutinous rice for the meal. To test whether the rice has been sufficiently soaked, try squashing a grain with your fingers. If it gives easily, it is ready for steaming.
Step 2: transferring the rice to a steamer
Drain off the rice water. (Try using this water later as a hair rinse. It is especially good for bringing out the gloss in long hair.)
Put water one-third up the side of the traditional, aluminium steamer pot (maw nung). A Western pot with steamer insert may be used in place of the traditional equipment. Place the pot on the heat and bring the water to the boil.
Meanwhile, tip the drained sticky rice into the traditional conical bamboo steamer (houad). Smooth the top of the rice, and then place the houad in the maw nung. If using a Western steamer pot and insert, lay a loose weave cloth in the base of the steamer insert so the rice does not fall through. Make certain that the houad’s bottom or steamer insert is not touching the water, or the rice will be soggy.
Step 3: steaming the rice
Cover the rice container with a bamboo lid or clean tea towel. Let the rice steam for 20 – 30 minutes. Ensure the water does not boil away. The cooking time depends on the rice’s age. Fresh rice takes less time. If cooking a large amount of sticky rice, half way through the steaming, flip the contents over as they lie in the steamer. Alternatively, cook the rice longer – up to 40 minutes if old rice.
Step 4: presenting and storing the rice
When the grains are soft with no ‘bone’ and when they have released a sweet, nutty taste, take the houad or steamer insert off the pot. Tip its contents onto a clean surface, cloth or banana leaf. Using a wooden paddle or spatula, flatten and spread the rice to release the steam. Let the rice rest a moment, and then turn the edges of the rice inwards to create a flattish ball. Divide the whole into smaller balls to fit inside individual sticky rice baskets if they are being used. Alternatively, serve the rice family-style, putting the entire mass on one plate for the table.
Step 5: using leftover sticky rice
- To keep the rice warm and supple if it is to be eaten later in the day, store it in cheese cloth in a sticky rice basket. It may also be wrapped in a cloth and placed in an insulated cool bucket of similar size, a practice often used in Lao restaurants and large families.
- Leftover sticky rice is best stored un-refrigerated but may be stored in a plastic bag in the fridge and re-steamed later, briefly. A quick blat in the microwave also works.
- Cooked rice can also be shaped into thin wafers and sun dried. These pieces may then be grilled and added to stews as a thickening agent. Larger dried rice cakes, prepared the same way, may be deep-fried and used as a base for savoury or sweet toppings.