Sticky rice is one of those great joys of Asian cuisine that people love across the globe, but may not fully understand. What makes it sticky? How does it differ from regular white rice? Where does it come from and is it supposed to be that sticky?
As huge fans of glutinous rice, which is sticky rice’s formal name, we’re here to clear up a few things. For starters, sticky rice is distinct from common white rice; it’s not merely a different preparation. It’s a short grain variety of rice grown in South East Asia. While many types of short grain rice may be lumped together with and called “sticky rice,” true glutinous rice is a separate breed, and it all boils down to a component of starch. Glutinous rice contains just one component of starch, called amylopectin, while other kinds of rice contain both molecules that make up starch: amylopectin and amylose. There’s more to it than that, of course — namely that it’s amazingly fun to eat.
Here are nine things you should know about sticky rice, the awesome food that is a staple in thousands of people’s diets.
Sticky rice is the staple food in Laos.
While many people may associate sticky rice with Thai food, it’s specific only to Northern Thailand. The country where sticky rice is more appropriately called a national staple is the neighboring country of Laos. Thailand’s cuisine varies throughout the country, and Northern Thai food is more similar to Lao food than to Southern noodles and curry dishes. Small and landlocked, Laos has not exported its cuisine in the same way Thailand has, which is why many people often associate sticky rice with the whole of Thailand as opposed to Laos and Northern Thailand.
In Laos, sticky rice is eaten by hand.
Sticky rice is not only meant to be eaten with your hands in Laos, but it is also meant to serve as a utensil. The basic method is scooping up a mound of rice, forming it into a little cup, and using it to scoop up your food. It’s really fun to eat.
Sticky rice is grown in both the lowlands and uplands of Laos.
While regular white rice is grown in wet rice paddies, sticky rice requires less water to grow and therefore might be grown on hillside uplands as opposed to lowland paddies. In Laos, you’ll find the rice growing in both environments.
Sticky rice comes in many colors.
Hulled sticky rice is white in color, but unhulled it might be black or purple. These latter varieties are more rare and expensive, and often used in desserts
Sticky rice owes its stickiness to its starch content.
Starch is made up of two components: amylose and amylopectin. While long grain rice contains both starch components, sticky rice only contains amylopectin, with an almost negligible amount of amylose. When hot water interacts with amylopectin-heavy sticky rice, the starch molecules separate, turning the rice soft and sticky.
Sticky rice is traditionally steamed, not boiled.
Sticky rice requires less water to cook than regular rice, thus many people choose to steam it instead of boiling it.
There is no gluten in glutinous rice.
Despite its name, glutinous rice contains no gluten. It’s safe for all you gluten-free folks out there, so have at it!
Sticky rice is endurance fuel.
Smithsonian Magazine says that sticky rice takes longer to digest than regular rice, which makes it great food for monks to eat as their single meal of the day. Buddhist monks in Laos, Smithsonian Mag explains, typically eat just one meal a day, and people give rice — typically sticky rice — to monks as donations. Sticky rice is favorable because it will keep the monks fuller, longer.
It makes up one of the best desserts on the planet: sticky rice with coconut and mango.
Known as Kha Niao Man in Thailand, this dessert is the sweet, pillowy stuff of dreams. It consists of sticky rice covered in a coconut milk sauce and served alongside fresh mango.