Sticky rice is a round grained rice that sometimes is called sweet rice because it often is used in desserts.  It also is called glutinous rice because it has a sticky, chewy texture when cooked (but not because it contains gluten – it’s gluten free).   The gluey texture results from a near absence of the starch amylose and a high presence of the starch amylopectin, both of which also are in regular rice, but in different proportions.   When hot water interacts with the amylopectin, the starch molecules separate and the rice becomes soft, translucent, shiny and sticky.

Although sticky rice is grown mainly in Southeast and East Asia, Northeast India and Bhutan, it is considered the national dish of the land locked state of Laos where, by some accounts, it has been grown for over 4,000 years.  It is the primary staple of Laos and of parts of five countries bordering it:  China, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. In Laos the rice is eaten by hand; first formed into a small ball, it is flattened into a cup and used as a utensil to scoop up bites of food.  It is available in both long and short grained varieties and in numerous cultivars.  It is nearly twice the price of regular rice.

Sticky rice is a part of Buddhist religious ceremonies in Laos, including rituals for planting, rainfall, harvesting and death.  Uncooked grains are sometimes tossed into the air after communal prayers.  Smithsonian Magazine (see Mike Ives, A Taste of Sticky Rice, Laos’ National Dish, Smithsonian Magazine, February 1, 2011), notes that sticky rice takes longer to digest than regular rice, which is a boon to Buddhist monks in Laos who only eat a single meal each day; it keeps them fuller longer.   “Tourists line up each morning like band groupies outside of a stadium box office,” Ives writes, “to place steaming clumps of khao niaw into the monk’s collection pots.”

Often used in desserts, stuffings and dumplings, sticky rice requires less water to cook and as a result usually is steamed.  While a bamboo steamer is the perfect cooking vessel, a stainless vegetable steamer or an improvised combination of a sieve, lined with cheesecloth, covered and perched over a saucepan of bubbling water will work in a pinch.