So deeply rooted in history, so utterly essential that in many cultures, the word for “rice” is the very same word for “meal,” or just simply “food.” The whole world as we know it could have quite plausibly begun from a single grain of rice. Trying to break down the myriad varieties though, from ancient to modern hybrid, is where things start to get sticky.
That’s exactly what I want to pick apart today: Sticky rice. For starters, sticky rice is distinct from common long grain white rice, and no amount of special preparation will come close to its unique characteristics. Don’t let any blissfully thrifty cooks tempt you into thinking that any overcooked long grains, gummy and swollen with too much water, are even remotely acceptable substitutes. While many types of short grain rice may be lumped together and called “sticky rice,” true glutinous rice is a separate breed. It all boils down to its starchy constitution. 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. Amylose does not gelatinize during cooking, which keeps grains separate and fluffy. Without that buffer, you’ll find a range of creamier or downright cohesive results.
Thai sticky or glutinous rice has been the object of my affection and frustration since the very first forkful I enjoyed in Thailand itself. Back at home, understanding the culinary transmogrification happening to turn out such a familiar yet entirely unique staple has been a fascinating, humbling experience.
A medium-to-long-grain rice hailing from South East and East Asia, glutinous rice does not actually contain gluten, but the name refers to the rice’s glue-like sticky quality, which easily binds it into rice balls and cakes. Black Thai sticky rice is simply the wholegrain version, meaning the bran has not been removed. Contrary to the name, it’s actually more of a mottled, deep purple color and has an exceptionally chewy, toothsome bite. Like other unmilled or brown rices, it takes slightly longer to cook than white varieties.
Typically soaked overnight, gently steamed in a special bamboo basket, and painstakingly tended all the while, traditional methods of cooking are as intimidating as they are ultimately gratifying. Every minute of planning and preparation is well worth the effort, but not exactly an endeavor for an everyday meal. If you’re willing to sacrifice authenticity for the sake of almost-instant satisfaction, I’m happy to share a secret shortcut to get those sticky morsels on the table in a fraction of the time.
Use 1/4 – 1/2 cup dry grains per person and bundle them up in a nutmilk bag. Plunge into a pot of boiling water, keeping the top drawn tightly closed and out of the water, as if you were steeping an oversized tea bag. Turn off the heat and let soak for 10 minutes. Bring the heat back up to medium, bring to a simmer, and cook for 20 minutes. Elevate the bag in a large strainer, raise the heat to high, and steam for a final 10 – 15 minutes. If using black sticky rice, soak for 15 minutes and simmer for 25.
Most Americans might be familiar with mango sticky rice, a simple dessert featuring ripe mango slices crowning tender grains in a pool of sweetened coconut cream. The combination is hard to beat, tried and true, but so easily adapted for further flavor sensations. Consider the avocado, if you would, as an alternate fruit to feature. Straying a bit from the beaten path, I played around with this Blue Lagoon Sticky Rice by adding a touch of butterfly pea tea powder to the rich and creamy sauce, since it’s also a native Thai ingredient.
That said, there’s nothing wrong with eating fresh, hot sticky rice straight-up, ungarnished in all its fully fragrant, tenaciously clingy glory.