I love to hang out around food, whether it is to eat it or to watch it be prepared. The aroma of fresh chilies hitting the hot charcoal is enough to make my mouth water. The sound of the pestle hitting the mortar tells me, no matter where I find myself in the world, that I have in fact arrived at a Lao home and that I will have something to eat that will warm my soul. It is true that my most special and treasured memories come accompanied by some sensory recognition. For example, every time I hear the song “Cars and Girls” by Prefab Sprout, I get transported back to the late eighties, to the winding road up the French Alps, where my uncle and aunt took us on winter breaks, to ski and get away from the rainy city of Le Havre. I can still feel the cool air on my face, the crisp blue sky and bright sun above me. All 4 of us (my 2 cousins, my younger brother, and I) would have our Walkman on and cranked up all the way with our favorite tunes while snacking on sticky rice with hard boiled eggs and ‘Jeo Bong’ (ແຈ່ວບອງ or spicy chili paste), so that my uncle can have a peaceful drive. Vacations (at least twice a year) are sacred to the French, winters up in the mountains, and summers at the beach…
When I first had the opportunity to return to my motherland in the winter of 2008, I thought something would let me know right away that I was once again home, something that would hit me as I step out of the airplane and as soon as my feet could walk the Lao soil. I was waiting for that movie moment with great anticipation in the months leading up to that trip, imagining tears rolling down my cheeks in that instant recollection. Though I was immediately overcome with emotions to hear my mother tongue spoken everywhere, that scene was not in the story board upon my arrival at the Wattay International Airport. Still, I was so excited then that I even shared my home coming feelings with the officer who stamped my visa – he looked at me with a sweet smile as if he understood. It was not until a couple of days later, at the crack of dawn, that it hit me really hard: it was the sound of the wood crackling in the fire and its sparks, the smell of its smoke, and the fragrance of freshly cooked sticky rice, while roosters crowed competing with the beating of the neighboring temples’ drums. I choked up a bit. To me, that is the sight, smell, and sound of Laos.
Sticky rice (ເຂົ້າໜຽວ) or most of the time called glutinous or sweet rice, is to the Lao what baguettes are to the French, burgers to the Americans. There is a Lao saying that goes something like this: ບ່ອນໃດມີສຽງແຄນ ມີເຂົ້າໜຽວ ບ່ອນນັ້ນລະ ມີຄົນລາວ, “Where there is the sound of the khene (ແຄນ, national musical instrument) and sticky rice, there live Lao people”. Cooking sticky rice is second nature, a daily ritual, whether it is to make morning offering to the monks or to eat with every meal. Our dinner at the house on the Mekong always began with my grandfather taking the first bite of food, scooped up with a small ball of sticky rice from a bamboo basket, from its edge: it is considered rude and selfish to get rice from the center of the basket, as that part usually has the softest rice, versus the rice around the edges of the basket is dryer and harder.
I had planned to begin this blog with giving the recipe, more so the directions, on how to cook sticky rice the Lao way. As a matter of fact, I grew up not knowing any other ways to cook sticky rice but using a ‘huad’ (ຫວດ or cone shaped bamboo basket) atop an urn-like pot (ໝໍ້ເໜຶ້ງ or steamer pot). It was much later during my college years that I had to resort to creativity to fulfill my cravings for sticky rice: dormitory food didn’t satisfy me after a while. But the required steamer basket and pot combination is very awkwardly shaped and would have taken a lot of space in my crammed living quarters. I had to make do with what I had in the kitchen. This post led me to think about my adopted younger siblings in their small kitchens in the big cities: New York City singles, Kathy and Ranee; Los Angeles fashion student, Katherina aka Poupee; my adopted little brother Toan in Boston; and my Ivy League student/nephew, Aniran, in Providence, Rhode Island. They all have moved away from their Seattle home to do their things. I wonder how they would get their sticky rice fixes without their family and without the traditional cookware… and I know they miss it, because they would send requests for Lao food prior to their home coming. I realize that not everyone will go at length to fulfill their cravings, but fear no more!
Below are the basic directions on how to cook sticky rice, and some inventive ways to cook it. For all methods of cooking, always begin with the steps of Soaking the Sticky Rice, and end with the steps of “Fanning of the Rice”.
Soaking the Sticky Rice
- About 1/2 cup uncooked rice per person, though on the smaller portion. I never mind left over rice, as I can turn it into a breakfast favorite the next day, or use it as important component to various other dishes.
- Rub and clean rice until water runs clear. This process gets rid of the excess starch.
- Fill with room temperature water about 2 inches above rice and let soak for 4-5 hours. Overnight soaking will speed the cooking time, especially if making a big batch.
Traditional Method – Need steamer pot and cone shaped woven bamboo basket. Fill steamer pot with 10 cups of water and bring to rolling boil.
- Wet basket by rinsing as this will prevent the rice to stick to it, drain and put rice in it, put basket on top of steamer pot, and cover with lid.
- Cook on medium high heat for 15-20 minutes depending on the amount of rice, or until the rice turns translucent.
- “Flip” the rice upside down (ຊິກເຂົ້າ) by holding both sides of the basket, shaking the rice from the edges, and giving it a quick flip inside the basket. The top will get closer to the water and high steam for an evenly cooked rice, and cook for another 10 minutes or until the rice is soft.
Steamer Insert and Cheese Cloth Method – Need pot with its steamer insert (I have used a stainless steel colander before and it worked as well) and a cheese cloth to lay on top as the holes of the steamer are likely to be too big and rice will fall through. Add 3 inches of water to the pot and leave at least couple inches between the bottom of steamer and water surface.
- Place cheese cloth over steamer insert (or colander) and add drained rice. Make sure to leave some holes uncovered so steam can come through and cook rice from the top as it circulates.
- Place on top of pot with water on rolling boil, cover, and cook for 15 minutes.
- Flip the rice upside down with a wooden spatula, cover, and cook another 10 minutes.
Splatter Guard and Dome Cover Method -Need a pan, mesh splatter guard, and a salad bowl or aluminum mixing bowl.
- Put water in pan about 2 inches deep. Make sure there is enough room, couple inches at least, in between the surface of the water and the splatter guard. Bring water to a boil.
- Add drained sticky rice on the splatter guard spreading evenly, and cover with a dome like lid, a clear salad bowl, or an aluminum mixing bowl (whatever you have on hand). Cook for 15 minutes.
- Remove cover cautiously as it will be hot. Use a wooden spatula and flip the rice over for even cooking. Cover and cook another 10 minutes.
ວີເຂົ້າ or “Fanning the Rice – It is important to “fan” the rice once it is cooked, regardless of the method of cooking, as this process gets rid of the steam, so that when stored, the rice doesn’t sweat too much and become soggy by the time it is served.
- Pour rice onto a traditional woven bamboo tray or large bowl.
- “Fan” the rice (ວີເຂົ້າ) by flipping it around with a wet wooden spatula to cool off the rice.
- Put the rice in the traditional woven bamboo basket to keep warm until serving. This container gives the rice breathing room through the basket weaves, instead of trapping its moisture inside, making the rice soggy and too sticky.
Which ever method suits you, I hope you will find these easy cooking steps helpful, as we will embark on an exciting journey of preparing more delectable dishes from this very sticky rice!