Why We’re Dreaming of Sticky Rice in San Diego

Why We’re Dreaming of Sticky Rice in San Diego

I remember watching my mother make sticky rice every morning. She’d be up long before the sun. The roosters crowing along to the sound of lukewarm water running through every hand full of starchy grain.

Washing, rinsing, and repeating as the cloudy water floated away.

Hot steam rises out of the traditional bamboo basket that Christy uses to make sticky rice for an event in San Diego.
Sticky rice, also known as glutinous rice, is staple for many people in South East Asia.

Soaking, sitting, steaming.

She’d do this day in, day out. Never skipping a beat, never missing a meal.

Piping hot pillowy balls of goodness.  Perfectly salted, perfectly sweet. I never realized how much I craved for something so simple. As I grew older, the annoyance of my mother’s 5am cooking call was a missed memory. I longed for the aroma of freshly steamed rice. Searched the blankets for the warm bamboo baskets she kept it in. Hiding it from my siblings and I, until it was cool enough for consumption.

Once considered a rice for poor people from the countryside, sticky rice now enjoys international acclaim thanks to dishes like mango and sticky rice.
In Thailand’s countryside, Christy examines a photo of her grandparents, who lived in Laos.

The history of this dish originates from my mothers homeland, Laos. Although you can find it in nearly every Thai market, it is one of those Issan dishes that most Lao people eat daily. Oftentimes, multiple times a day. Sticky rice is a long, white fragrant grain almost only discernible by it’s thickness, compared to traditional jasmine rice. You may find it in San Diego’s asian markets labeled ‘sweet rice’ or ‘glutinous rice’. We use it as the vessel to carry other dishes like stews, dipping sauces known as jeow, or to accompany your favorite meat. Unlike Thailand, Laotians eat almost solely with their hands. Sticky rice balls are our utensils, and you scoop your food with the rice, sharing each meal family style.

Historically Lao people ate sticky rice because it sustained them for long days on the farm. Many of them harvesting their own fields of rice as the wet lowlands provided the perfect burial ground for the coveted glutinous rice seeds. My family still harvests rice in their fields in Northern Thailand. As the days begin and end, they always include a warm Thip Khao (a traditional woven bamboo basket) full of the sticky goodness that is affectionately known as khao niew. These are the moments I now long for as an adult; family meals and shared laughter. Learning the history of how we came to be, honoring the land and our ancestors.

Ever wondered why they call it ‘sticky’ rice? This CK student has a clue!

“A single grain of rice can tip the scale. One man may be the difference between victory and defeat.”

– The Emperor in Disney’s Mulan

Take Christy’s cooking class in San Diego, or have an opportunity to taste her food when she cooks at pop up events.

Christy’s Top 5 Tips on How to Make Sticky Rice at Home

  1. Buy the correct rice. Many people don’t know that sticky rice is a species of rice, often referred to as glutinous rice.
  2. If you plan to make it often, consider investing in the bamboo basket to make it the traditional way. Other clever ways include making it in a pressure cooker with options for different types of rice grains.
  3. Don’t wait until you’re hungry to make sticky rice. The process is long. Prepare ahead, washing and soaking your rice the night before you plan to cook it.
  4. A little plastic wrap on the spoon or bowl used for scooping and molding the rice keeps the rice from sticking to it!
  5. Sticky rice is both a dinner staple and a dinner utensil. When the food is ready, this isn’t the time to be posh! Instead use your hands to ball up the sticky rice and dip it into the food you’re eating.

Thanks for reading. If you want to understand why we’re dreaming of sticky rice, you’ll have to ask about Issan food in our cooking classes or street food tours in Bangkok.

You can also find Christy, today’s author, leading our cooking classes and pop up events in sunny San Diego. We look forward to sharing a plate of sticky rice with you soon.