The Lao verb “to eat” is directly translated as “to eat rice” and one food that unites all Laos is ‘sticky’ rice, kao neaw.
Sticky rice is so central to Lao cuisine that it has become a distinguishing attribute of the Lao identity, in opposition to its ‘plain’ rice-eating neighbours, and even more particularly since many Laotians moved abroad because of political change. The saying goes “Laos – sticky rice. Thailand – steamed rice” and Laotians are such connoisseurs of their rice that most people can distinguish its age, and even specify where it was cultivated, just by smelling it.
All meals are eaten with sticky rice, which is also known in the West as ‘glutinous’. It is not the white, puffy mass of gloop that the name might imply from your memory of Chinese take-aways. Sticky rice is steamed until slightly translucent and each grain sticks to the next while holding its form. It is served from beautifully woven baskets and the Laotians use it to mop up food in the same way as Westerners use bread. The rice is rolled into a ball in the hand and with a pinch of a meat, fish or vegetable dish, it is dipped into chilli or other sauces and eaten.
How To Cook Sticky Rice in a traditional steamer
The name ‘glutinous’ rice is misleading as the grain contains no gluten. The stickiness of the cooked rice is due to the combination of the carbohydrates in the starchy interior and this rice is steamed rather than boiled. Buy a packet of glutinous rice from an Asian store, it should be labelled clearly.
Pour out as much as you would like to serve because it DOES NOT EXPAND when cooked like fluffy rice. Then put into a bowl with plenty of water and soak overnight, changing the water a couple of times. If you forgot to soak it overnight then you can soak it for a minimum of two hours but longer is better. Give the rice a final rinse and drain it. If you do not have a traditional bamboo steamer you can wrap the rice in fine muslin and steam it in a regular steamer.
The traditional steamer, a conical bamboo basket with matching aluminium pot, (available cheaply in Thai supermarkets) adds a certain perfume to the rice and is worth seeking out. First, fill the aluminium pot with about a litre of water, the water should not touch the bamboo basket. Place the bamboo basket on top of the pot, fill with a pound of drained rice and bring the water to the boil. Once boiling, steam the rice for approximately twenty-five minutes without a lid (varieties differ a little) turning it over in one lump, halfway through. To do this take it off the heat and toss it. The rice should lift from the bottom and turn over in one lump.
When ready, the rice should look opaque and firm. If it is gooey you’ve cooked it too long, if it’s crunchy, not enough. Laotians cook it perfectly every time, I however, sometimes get a little gooey bit at the bottom of the conical basket. I’ve learnt to live with it. Take the rice out of the steamer and roll it around on the work surface to release a bit of steam, then put it in a basket and serve. To eat, roll it into a ball in your hand and use to to soak up food juices as you would bread.
N.B. Once cooked do not store it in the fridge, it goes hard.
Some more information about Lao sticky rice.
Rice is the single most important crop in Laos and takes up 72% of the cultivated area, 85% of which is ‘sticky rice’. It tends to have a shorter growing season (90-110 days as opposed to 100-200) than non-sticky varieties, grows better in poorer soils with erratic rainfall; and once cooked, keeps longer and is easily transportable. Nearly all Lao sticky rice is consumed locally.
The differences between plain and sticky rice the proportion of two starches, amylose (linear glucose molecules) and amylopectin (branched glucose molecules), within the grain. Dry and fluffy rice varieties have a high amylose starch content of 10–25 percent, while sticky rice contains only 0.8 to 1.3 percent. It has been suggested that the variety came about by the selection of man but the evidence has been lost in time.
Farmers tend to grow a small area of prized native varieties for their own needs, spreading them through the growing season, and it is not uncommon for one family to have been growing their own special strain for centuries. They grow and distinguish between early (Kau do), medium (Kau kang/theung) and late growing rice (Kau pee). This enables farmers to stagger the workload and hedge against natural disasters that might affect the entire harvest
The rice can be cultivated wet or dry. In the lowlands, the wet method is preferred and the crop is grown in irrigated flooded paddy fields. In this method they plant a ‘nursery field’ and allow the rice to grow to about 12 inches high while the main fields are plowed and flooded. The young plants are then transplanted manually (twelve to fifty days worth of an individuals labour) and tended by hand until they are harvested after the rains and the fields are drained.
In the mountains the dry method is preferred for topographical reasons. The fields are prepared using the slash and burn technique prior to the rains in late April. The seeds are hand planted with a dribble stick in rows of holes and they begin to sprout in the rains at the beginning of May. The fields then have to be weeded every day until the harvest at the end of the rainy season in late September/ October, (though I saw rice harvested as late as December and January). It is extremely labour intensive, and a farmer will typically spend one hundred and sixty-five days of the year on his rice crop.
At harvest time, many families build a small hut in the fields and move into it to save time and guard against pests. They fence off an area to grow vegetables and keep animals such as chickens and pigs who live off the discarded rice bran and kitchen scraps.
The mature plants, with their droopy seed heads, are usually harvested with a sickle and gathered into sheaths or hung on a scaffold to dry. The rice has to be threshed to separate the grain from the stem. This can be done by simply thrashing the sheaths against the inside of a large basket, on a log or alternatively laying the sheaths down on a mat and beating them with a stick. I have even seen people riding over them on a bicycle. Alternatively some ethnic groups strip the grain by hand directly in the fields by holding the stem and pulling off the grain into the hand.
The grains are then winnowed to remove the chaff using a large flat tray. The grains are thrown in the air and back onto the tray so that the breeze carries away the chaff.
Finally, the rice has to be pounded to remove the bran. Village women typically spend half an hour each morning pounding the family’s rice which they put by to soak overnight. Yesterdays hulled, soaked rice would then be steamed in a bamboo basket for thirty to forty minutes for the family’s consumption. The cooked rice is placed in a ‘lunch basket’ to be eaten in the fields.
Sticky rice is also used in many other ways: fermented to make spirit or beer; ground into flour to make noodles, cakes and sweets or ground and roasted to add flavour to other foods -delicious in every form.