White Sticky Rice – Kao Niow
by Kasma Loha-unchit
Sticky Rice – A Special Chewy White Rice
The people of northern and northeastern Thailand prefer to consume a variety of rice called kao niow or, literally, "sticky rice." Easily cultivated on the hillsides and high plateaus of these two regions, it requires less water to grow than the wet rice of the central lowlands. More commonly known as "sweet" or "glutinous" rice among other Asians, it is usually identified by either of these two names on the labels of rice sacks.
Sticky rice is a starchy grain. If steamed or boiled the same way as regular rice, the grains will break down and become soft and mushy in consistency. Instead, Thai people like to cook it in such a way that the rice grains remain whole and have a firm, chewy texture. To accomplish this, the rice is soaked for several hours (4 hours or more) until the grains have absorbed enough water to cook. Then it is drained and steamed dry in a woven bamboo basket without adding any water.
Though the grains remain whole, steamed sticky rice sticks together in a lump. Northerners and northeasterners eat with their hand, pulling off a bite-size chunk at a time and rolling the rice with the fingers and palm of the right hand roughly to form a ball. The rice ball is then dipped in a spicy sauce, or picked up together with morsels of accompanying meat, fish or vegetables. Sticky rice lends itself well to eating by hand. It is not messy because, if done correctly, the grains stick to each other but not to the fingers or the palm. Rolling the last bite of rice at the end of a meal usually sops up the remaining juices and grease from fingers and palm and effectively cleans the hand. In the rural northeast, or the Isahn region – the country's poorest and most traditional region – a recent song likens the togetherness of villagers to the sticky rice they eat, people "sticking" together and helping each other out in contrast with city folk in the central valley who have lost their ties to family and village.
Sticky rice comes in both short-grain and long-grain varieties. Thai people prefer the long-grain rice; the short-grain variety is more commonly used in Chinese and Japanese cooking. Among the long-grain varieties, some have a delicate, aromatic flavor, and these "high-grade" hybrids are distinguished as "jasmine" sweet or glutinous rice, much like their fragrant cousins in the non-glutinous family. The starchiness of sticky rice gives it a distinct opaque whiteness different from the more translucent appearance of regular rice grains, but the reverse is true after the rices are cooked. Soaked and steamed as described, sticky rice becomes translucent, while regular rice turns opaque white when cooked.
Sticky rice is consumed in other parts of Thailand as well, but usually it is sweetened and flavored with coconut milk for sweet snacks or desserts. (See recipe for Coconut Flavored Sticky Rice with Mangoes.) It is especially popular during the mango and durian season when tons of the coconut-flavored rice are sold to eat along with these precious fruits. In mango season during the hottest months of the year – March through May – streetside vendors, neighborhood fruit stands and kanom (sweet snack) shops all over the country do a brisk business selling sticky rice along with their precious golden fruits. Large mounds of glistening grains filling enormous metal bowls may be seen alongside neatly arranged piles of yellow mangoes and odoriferous prickly durians. These are two of the favorite fruits among Thai people, and both go well with rich, creamy sticky rice.
When eating Isahn food, steamed sticky rice is a definite must. Barbecued chicken with Green Papaya Salad; various lahbs (intensely spicy minced meat salads); fermented sour sausages called naem; little round Isahn pork sausages and spicy nahm prik sauces made with fermented shrimp or fish, accompanied by crisp raw vegetables and pungent and aromatic herbs – all are very good when eaten together with chewy sticky rice. It seems the more you chew, the better everything tastes. Use your hand as the Isahn people do. It makes for a truly delightful finger-licking experience.
Cooking White Sticky Rice
To cook sticky rice, Thais use a cone-shaped, woven bamboo basket that looks somewhat like a straw hat. The basket fits over a tall companion pot with a wide collar to hold it in place. Depending on how much rice is to be steamed, any round lid that fits above the rice level in the basket can be used as a cover. A few inches of water in the pot, when heated over a burner, produce the steam which rises and passes through the basket to cook the presoaked rice. Homes and restaurants in the north and northeast serve cooked sticky rice in small round baskets with covers (called gkra-dtip), which are placed around the dining table. These baskets come in different sizes; some hold enough rice for one or two people, while larger ones serve four or more.
The special steaming basket and pot are available from Southeast Asian markets and are essential for the even cooking of larger quantities of sticky rice (from a few cups to five pounds of rice at a time.) They are inexpensive, about five dollars apiece, and will last a long, long time, making lots of wonderful batches of delicious sticky rice.
If you are unable to find the special basket, try using a straw or wire-mesh colander placed on a rack over a steamer. Avoid steaming the rice directly on a steamer rack lined with dampened cloth (as suggested by some sources) because the moisture the cloth absorbs is likely to turn the grains touching it into a mushy, gooey mass. If you are making just a small quantity (i.e., less than two cups), it would work to steam the rice in a dry bowl placed on a steamer rack. Do spread the grains out loosely rather than compacting them down on the dish; this makes it easier for the steam to reach the inner layers and cook all the grains more evenly. Make sure to soak the rice in plenty of water for several hours, or overnight, before steaming. Steam about half an hour or until the rice is thoroughly cooked through. (See recipe for Steamed White Sticky Rice.)
Don't use the sticky rice cooking method for other sorts of rice. It won't work because non-glutinous rice is a much denser grain and will not absorb water the same way glutinous rice does. Even if soaked all day, when steamed dry, regular rice will not cook and produce the chewy texture of sticky rice.
Sticky rice is usually labelled "glutinous rice" or "sweet rice." The following brands are all good: Golden Phoenix, Butterfly, and Sanpatong (Three Ladies Brand). (Kasma's Favorite Brands.)
Our Ingredients Index contains links to many more Thai ingredients.