What’s Cooking: Sticky rice

My parents, celebrating my dad’s birthday and their Northern Thai heritage at Maan Mueng Restaurant

My father just turned 75, and to celebrate that day (after a COVID-caused delay) he booked out the restaurant Maan Muang, where my family believes the best Northern Thai food in the city is served. Being a Chiang Rai native, my father of course believes he is the expert on this subject, and that his hometown (and my birthplace, incidentally) serves local cuisine of a far superior quality, flavor-wise, to the more generic Chiang Mai. (Although the people at Maan Muang hail from Lampang, not Chiang Rai, I feel obliged to add).

I do love Maan Muang, although I would personally stick to the dishes that are, well, meant to go with sticky rice, and not the noodle dishes like khao soi (curried Northern Thai-style noodles) or kanom jeen nam ngiew (fermented rice noodles in a minced pork stew).

Fermented pork slices, pak waan (sweet vegetable) stew, green leaves stir-fried with egg, beef larb, and pickled cabbage stew, all with sticky rice

The sticky rice at Maan Muang is red and mildly glutinous, treading the fine line between not too loose and not too gummy. This rice is a staple in the North and Northeast, where food is commonly rolled up into a ball with fingers (an act called pun khao or “rolling rice”) and dipped into the stew, soup, relish, salad or strip of meat (already parceled onto your own plate, of course) of your choice. Food scholars say sticky rice (khao niew) is and has always been considered the staple of the plebs, whereas jasmine rice (khao suoy, or “beautiful rice”) is the purview of the aristocrat. That may be so, but if I had to choose between the two, I would always choose sticky rice.

Many people think that sticky rice is a simple affair made in a rice cooker, but in my household, where this dish can make or break a meal, it is always cooked traditionally, in a huad or woven basket, set over a pot of boiling water and topped with a lid. It’s perfect for allowing air to circulate between the rice grains, ensuring that the grains are not soggy, and for grabbing at each end and tossing, mid-cook.

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A traditional Thai sticky rice steamer

But if you don’t have access to a huad, don’t despair. You can simply use a fine-mesh sieve, or a traditional steamer lined with cheesecloth. For the purposes of my upcoming book, I used a sieve, which the French very un-P.C.-ly call a chinois

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But before you get to that point, you have to soak your sticky rice grains overnight in room temperature water (or in boiling hot water for 20-30 minutes before cooking). Drain and wash three times before pouring a potful of boiling hot water to cover.

Stir grains to keep them from sticky together for 5 minutes or until grains are slightly translucent. Drain and set to steam in your sieve or lined steamer for 20-30 minutes over a boiling pot of water. Cover with a lid big enough to cover all the grains. If there is a gap between the edge of the pot and the lid because of the sieve, set a towel over the lid but beware of setting the towel on fire.

After 10 minutes, take off the lid and toss the grains or give them a good stir.

After 20-30 minutes (or when the grains are tender), spread over a wet flat surface like a tray to cool, making sure to turn occasionally with a rice paddle in order to get rid of trapped steam. This ensures the rice is not soggy.

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Your rice is now ready to eat. If you’re not ready, put it in a bowl and cover loosely with plastic wrap, or even better, in your woven sticky rice holder, which has holes that allow steam to escape, but are not too big that the sticky rice will dry out. For such a simple food, it can be a bit temperamental.

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Enjoy your sticky rice! One of my favorite meals on earth is a gob of this with fried chicken and a good dollop of a garlicky, heady chili dip like nam prik tha dang (red-eye chili dip), especially if it comes from Midnight Fried Chicken in Chiang Mai.  

6 Comments

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6 responses to “What’s Cooking: Sticky rice

  1. Eric Fang

    Hey, is this post truncated? Keep on posting, love to hear your thoughts. Esp. Regarding current state of street food innBangkok.

  2. I have very, very good memories of food in Chiang Rai (I was just eating at the local eateries)!

    More blessed years ahead for your dad. 🎊

  3. Dennis Kitch

    Years ago, we really enjoyed a dish called Mee Korb Larb Na. We were told that it is an iconic Chang Rai dish. Here in Oregon no one has ever heard of it. Do you know this dish?
    BTW I’ve been following your blog for years and love it!
    How we miss the Land of Smiles.

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