Thursday, March 4, 2010

Lao Food: Sticky Rice

My mother and I only get to spend about ten days together each year. She lives in France and we try to make each visit count. My goal each time is to come away with a part of her that I can cherish and hang on to. We often talk about my grandmother, who used to grow herbs and vegetables along the banks of the Mekong river in Laos, where the receding flood waters leave the soil rich and fertile. Mom also reminds me of Lao customs, like you mustn't sit higher than the oldest person in the room. Mostly, though, we talk about knitting and cooking. My mother knits and crochets beautifully, without using patterns, and tries to convince me that I, too, can knit without a pattern. I'm not convinced.

My last visit was a couple of weeks ago. Mom thinks I can't cook, certainly not Lao food, so this time, we worked on my Lao cooking skills. This post, then, begins my journey into the cooking of traditional Lao food, with guidance from the great matriarch.

The foundation of a Lao meal is sticky rice, or perhaps more proper, glutinous rice. This is a long grain rice different from Jasmine, sushi or basmati rice. The rice is first soaked and then steamed. When cooked, it sticks together in one big mass and is eaten with your hands. A small ball of rice is made with your fingers and then dipped into spicy chiew. The rice absorbs the chiew like a sponge. Chiew is always present at my mother's table and is made mostly of roasted chilies, shallots and garlic. I'll have more to follow on dishes that go with sticky rice but first here's how to make the rice. To begin, you'll need a rice steamer and basket to cook the rice. You'll also need a covered rice basket to store and serve the cooked rice. These are all available online or at an Asian grocery.

Rice steamer and basket

Serving rice baskets

In a regular mixing bowl, cover two cups of rice with 2 to 3 inches of water and soak for 6 to 24 hours. I usually do this in the morning for the evening meal, or overnight for lunch.

Drain the rice and place in the steamer basket. Set the basket over several inches of boiling water in a large pot, making sure the bottom of the steamer basket does not touch the water below. Cover the basket with whatever regular pot lid fits. After steaming for 20 minutes, flip the rice over so what was on top is now on the bottom. To do this like my Mom does, hold the top of the steamer basket in both hands and take it away from the boiling pot of water. Then, an up-and-down jerking motion can lift and flip the rice. It takes a little practice, and it may take several tries before you get it. (Or you can use a big wooden spoon.) When the rice is flipped over, steam, uncovered, for another 5 minutes. Turn the cooked rice out onto a tray and with a long-handled wooden spoon flatten it out and turn it over on itself. This helps get rid of any clumps and lets off steam so the rice doesn't get soggy.

Place the hot rice in a covered rice basket and keep warm under a thick blanket. Serve warm or at room temperature, directly from the basket. Spoons or other utensils are never used to serve the rice. People help themselves, using their fingers. Keep the rice basket covered when not in use or the rice will dry out if it is exposed to the air for long.

Two cups of uncooked rice will yield 4 servings.

Freshly cooked sticky rice

Eat with your fingers

At the kids' table, they're having sticky rice and omelet dipped in Maggi sauce.

Culturally confused, our Lao meal is followed by French cheese.


Alejandra said...

I love it. Lets make some sticky rice soon! Its one of my favorites.

HousiGirl said...

What variety of wine should I bring to go w/the sticky rice?
As long as I've got my palate worked up over Lao food, can I place my order for fresh spring rolls?

whmjr said...

i am totally going to get this going at the carriage house. Thanks Ting.

bob said...

Hey Ting! Can you post a recipe for the chiew? And what is a person to do who doesn't have the basket? Can you make decent sticky rice in a Le Creuset pot or a traditional Japanese-stype rice cooker?


bob corrigan