After living in Asia for three years I was quite sure I had eaten every single kind of rice dish. On my trip to Laos last month I discovered that wasn’t true. In the town of Luang Prabang I visited the Tamarind Restaurant and tried sticky rice for the first time. Sticky rice is a type of short-grained rice. I watched some women preparing sticky rice in Luang Prabang. First they soaked it for several hours in water and then placed it in a bamboo basket shaped like a boat. A fire was built in a large cracked crockery pot and when it had burned down to glowing embers a black cauldron filled with water was placed over the hot coals. The bamboo boat was gently laid across the top of the cauldron and in this way the rice was steamed for about half an hour. Later the women put the rice on a stone slab and kneaded it with a wooden paddle.
The rice had a glutinous texture by this point and it was placed in a narrow cylindrical bamboo basket with a lid. At the Tamarind Restaurant they set one of those baskets filled with sticky rice in front of each guest. We took the lid off and grabbed some rice between our fingers and rolled it into a round sticky ball. The Tamarind served a variety of interesting dips to roll your rice ball around in before popping it into your mouth. There was a chili paste called Jeow Bong, a salsa called Mak Len, an eggplant dip called Mak Keua and a corindar and garlic sauce called Pak Ham. My husband Dave tried rolling his sticky rice in several types of dip before eating it. Traditionally sticky rice is served with a group of snacks they call The Five Bites. At the Tamarind Restaurant our five bites included dried buffalo meat, pickled bamboo, lemon grass noodles, spicy cucumbers and tiny sausages.
Sticky rice is very tasty and it’s easy to pick up in your hands. Perhaps that is why the hundreds of monks in Luang Prabang favor sticky rice as a donation when they are begging. Every weekday hundreds of orange robed Buddhist monks parade through the streets of Luang Prabang just as the sun is rising. I got up one morning to watch them. The monks need to beg daily for enough food to sustain themselves. Devout women were perched on wooden stools along the monk’s route. The women were holding bamboo baskets filled with sticky rice. As the monk’s passed by they bowed their heads, reached into their baskets, grabbed a large ball of sticky rice and placed it in the monk’s begging bowl.
I’m as big a fan of sticky rice as the monks’ were. I think sticky rice is delicious. The only problem it presents is that when your meal is over your hands are just as sticky as the rice itself. Porcelain bowls of scented water and hot towels served by our Tamarind waiter at the end of our meal took care of that.
Sticky rice wasn’t the only new rice dish I tried in Laos. I also saw homemade rice cakes being made. Hundreds were drying on racks outside people’s homes in Luang Prabang.
I thought I’d tried every kind of rice dish possible since moving to Asia. My recent trip to Laos proved me wrong. This weekend I’m off to Borneo. I wonder if I’ll find a new rice dish there!
Published on 11/15/08