Black Sticky Rice – Kao Niow Dahm
by Kasma Loha-unchit
Black Sticky Rice: A Nutty Whole Grain
Sometimes identified on the bulk bins of specialty food markets as "Indonesian black rice," black glutinous or sweet rice is a nutty whole grain widely consumed in many of the Indonesian islands. If you have traveled to that part of the world, you may have fond memories of being served delicious black rice pudding for breakfast or dessert. Many Southeast Asian countries also cultivate and consume their fair share of this tasty whole grain. In Thailand, where the rice is known as black sticky rice (kao is rice; niow, sticky; dahm, black), I've seen it sold as a sweet snack more often in the marketplaces down south. I first saw beautiful patchwork fields of ripening black rice in the southern region, their dark tops waving in the wind, alternating side by side with patches of golden grain.
In Thailand, black sticky rice is consumed mostly in sweetened form and is not used as the main rice in a meal. In my cooking classes, I introduce the wholesome grain to my students in the form of a simple Black Sticky Rice Pudding). Over the years, many of them have grown very fond of this delicious rice and regard it as one of their favorite discoveries in my kitchen. Since taking the classes, some of them have traveled to Thailand but have returned with reports of disappointment and frustration in trying to find black rice pudding on the menus of restaurants there. Thai people seldom have such a rich and substantial dessert following so closely after a meal, preferring instead lighter sweet-soup concoctions or fresh seasonal fruits, or nothing at all. Both white and black sticky rice, as desserts, sit too heavily in the stomach following a meal and are nibbled on more as sweet snacks, in the mid-afternoon or later in the evening after a few hours' break from dinner. If you have a craving for black sticky rice while traveling in Thailand, look for it not in restaurants but in the larger fresh food markets likely to have sizable kanom (sweet snack) stalls carrying a wide assortment of sweet treats, including sticky rice. In Bangkok, you might also search for it along the crowded sidewalks near busy commercial centers, bus stations and heavily populated residential neighborhoods where pushcart vendors and mobile street hawkers set up temporary stalls, offering a wide variety of nibble food to satisfy every craving.
Among the fascinating markets great for walks and a sampling of Thai sweetmeats, the bustling streetside stalls in the Banglampoo area of Bangkok offer an exciting cultural adventure. The nighttime food scene in the Tonglaw area is equally impressive (except on Wednesdays when many vendors take the night off). In Chiangmai, I've found ready-to-eat black sticky rice with regularity in the basement kanom section of the extensive Worarot Market near the Bping River and, occasionally, in the colorful early morning market in foggy Mae Hong Sawn near the Burmese border. The vendor in Chiangmai sells many different kinds of sticky rice – white, black, red, yellow, green, brown – and at least half a dozen kinds of toppings. Just point to the rice you wish and choose a topping, and she will wrap your selections on a piece of banana leaf pinned with a bamboo pick. Push-cart kanom vendors in the larger towns in the south often will have black rice pudding cut in squares along with other delicious puddings made with cassava root, tapioca, taro and corn.
Black glutinous rice is a natural rice with grains that are unevenly colored and that look like wild rice when dry. Its rich, nutty flavor is distinctly different from the more subtle delicateness of white glutinous rice. Black rice is not the whole-grain version of white sticky rice as some may think, and unlike wild rice, it is fairly easy to cultivate. This is reflected in its reasonable price. Southeast Asian markets in America carry 5-lb. bags for about a dollar per pound. Most frequently, the black rice has been imported from Thailand.
On closer look, you will notice that "black" sticky rice isn't really black at all. After soaking for a few hours, the water will turn into a deep burgundy, showing the rice's true colors. This is the natural color of the rice, not an additive. If you wish to make a reddish sticky rice snack, mix together equal amounts of separately cooked white and black sticky rice and blend in with a coconut sauce. If you make a trip to the old city of Nakon Bpatom southwest of Bangkok to visit the enormous sacred shrine dating back to the fifth century, wander across the street to the lively market and try the town's famous kao lahm (sticky rice roasted in bamboo). Besides those stuffed with white sticky rice, there are others with a reddish black-and-white rice mixture, flavored with coconut milk and a sprinkling of black beans – a delectable and wholesome treat.
While black sticky rice is used primarily in sweet snacks and desserts in Asia, some of my cooking students have discovered that this nutty whole grain makes wonderful salads, much like tabbouleh.
Our Ingredients Index contains links to many more Thai ingredients.