Sticky rice is not like other rice. If you've ever thrown it into your rice cooker with a pile of water and assumed it would come out like regular long grain, you’ll know what we mean. It won’t. You’ll have glue. The difference lies in two substances called amylose and amylopectin, types of starch that all varieties of rice contain, but to varying degrees. Kinds of Rice that are high in amylose and low in amylopectin cook to a firm, dry texture – basmati is a perfect example of this. Conversely, low amylose/high amylopectin rice cook to a sticky texture and look translucent when cooked. Also called “glutinous” rice (it actually contains no gluten), sticky rice is extremely low in amylose. When cooked, it is waxy, dense and translucent, with a chewy texture and a distinctive, slightly sweet aroma and flavour that is unmistakably like no other rice. Sticky rice is a staple of South-East Asian and Chinese regional cuisines; it also features in Japan and Korea, to a lesser extent.
Sticky rice comes in various types – notably white (in both long- and short-grain varieties) and black. The latter type you’ll know if you’ve ever holidayed in Bali, where it’s cooked into a sweetish porridge served with coconut cream. In Burma, a popular breakfast is nga chiek paung, where steamed black sticky rice is served with boiled peas and crushed, salted sesame seeds; in Thailand and Cambodia and other South-East Asian countries, black sticky rice is popular in sweets and traditional cakes. During the mango and durian seasons, in particular, white sticky rice, flavoured liberally with coconut, is a popular accompaniment to these lush tropical fruits.
Somewhat chewy, black sticky rice cooks to a deep purple colour, which is rather startling when encountered for the first time. Black sticky rice is not the unhulled version of white rice – it’s a completely different variety. Either type of sticky rice benefits from an extended soaking before cooking – 4 hours is ample but overnight or 8 hours is ideal. (Leave it in a bowl of water before leaving for work in the morning; you don’t literally have to soak it overnight). As the rice soaks it absorbs enough water to cook, needing only a 20-minute steam to become tender. Cooked this way, the grains don’t go mushy (as they will if just boiled in water; although this is exactly what you want if you’re making black rice porridge), remaining whole and firm. In northern Thailand and Laos, where sticky rice is the carbohydrate of choice and where food is eaten using hands, the rice is formed into small balls by diners and used as a scoop for curries, salads and other dishes. Because it clumps tightly, and people in these parts are graceful and dexterous, it’s a clean, non-messy way to eat.
A cone-shaped woven bamboo basket or small, round, lidded bamboo basket is the traditional vessel for cooking sticky rice. But a steamer insert for a large saucepan, or a large bamboo steamer inside a wok, is the perfect substitute for this. Just make sure to line it with muslin or a clean kitchen towel first. Use whatever sticky rice you can buy for these recipes – Thai sticky rice, which tends to be medium to long-grain, is generally the easiest type to find.
1. Burmese sticky breakfast rice
Soak 150 g white sticky rice for 1 hour, then rinse well. Fry 1 thinly sliced onion in 2 tbsp oil until golden, then stir in ½ tsp ground turmeric and 2 tbsp pounded dried shrimp. Add rice, 250 ml (1 cup) water and 1 tsp salt. Cover, then simmer for 20 minutes over low, until rice is cooked. Rest for 5 minutes, then serve, scattered with toasted sesame seeds.
One of the great thrills of visiting Shanghai is discovering the city’s myriad street foods. They’re cheap, easy to find and different ones appear at various times of the day, making the city a veritable smorgasbord of casual-dining options. These sturdy dumplings make their appearance in the morning and are eagerly scoffed for breakfast or as a quick snack.
This is a fishy version of lemper ayam, popular street food in Indonesia made using shredded, cooked chicken, which you can use in this recipe instead of the tuna. The tomato side dish is a salady spin on sambal colo colo, a traditional tomato-based garnish for grilled fish from Maluku, and it makes an excellent, though not essential, accompaniment.
4. Roasted sticky rice powder
Heat a small, heavy-based frying pan to medium-high, add 2½ tbsp raw white sticky rice, cook, stirring often, for 8 minutes or until deep golden. Cool, then grind to a coarse powder using a mortar and pestle or an electric spice grinder. Use the powder to give texture to northern Thai and Laos salads such as laap or laab.
These delicious sticky rice cakes are often served in Vietnam as an accompaniment to grilled chicken or sweet crisp roasted duck but are just as delicious served solo, as a snack, dredged in sugar or icing sugar.
“Xoi” is the name for a whole suite of sweet and savoury Vietnamese dishes made using sticky rice. Often these are served for breakfast as a filling main dish but some types are simple snacks, wrapped in paper and eaten on the run; toppings include coconut, steamed dried beans, peanuts and taro. Similar to Chinese stir-fried sticky rice, this example of xoi is a ‘one-pot’ dish that makes a great easy dinner.
7. Black sticky rice pudding
Combine 1 cup soaked black sticky rice and ¾ cup soaked white sticky rice in a saucepan with 1.5 litres (6 cups) water and 4 bruised pandan leaves. Bring to a simmer, then cook over low heat, covered, for 30 minutes, stirring often, until rice is tender. Remove pandan. Add ½ cup finely chopped palm sugar and cook for another 5 minutes or until the sugar has dissolved. Add 1 tsp salt, cool slightly, then serve drizzled with coconut cream.
8. Palm sugar and pandan sticky rice cake
Steam 400 g soaked white sticky rice for 20 minutes or until tender. Combine 1 cup coconut cream, 225 g chopped palm sugar and 4 bruised pandan leaves in a saucepan and cook, stirring, for 10 minutes to dissolve sugar and infuse pandan. Discard pandan. Add rice and cook, stirring over low heat, for 12 minutes, or until liquid is absorbed. Press into an oiled 19 cm cake tin and cool. Cut into pieces to serve.
“Yaksik” means “medicinal food” in Korean and it’s thought the name comes from the fact that honey, an essential ingredient in this cake, was once called “yak”, or “medicine.” This sweet dish is traditionally eaten at weddings and at hwangab (60th birthday) festivities; a 60th birthday has enormous significance in Korea.
10. Sweet red beans and sticky rice
Cook ½ cup soaked, drained adzuki beans in 500 ml (2 cups) water for 1 hour, covered, until soft. Add ⅓ cup caster sugar and simmer, uncovered until reduced and syrupy. Steam 1½ cups soaked white sticky rice for 20 minutes, then place in a bowl. Combine ¾ cup coconut milk in a pan with ⅓ cup caster sugar and cook until sugar dissolves. Stir into the rice, then cool. Divide rice mixture among 6 bowls, top with the beans, extra coconut milk to taste and toasted sesame seeds.
Photography, styling and food preparation by china squirrel.
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When she doesn’t have her head in the pantry cupboard, Leanne Kitchen finds time to photograph food and write cookbooks. You can view her work on her website.