Why It Works
- Unlike most rice recipes, this rice is truly steamed, not boiled in water. Soaking the rice before steaming ensures that it cooks evenly.
- Rinsing the rice of excess starch keeps it from over-clumping into a solid mass.
- Steaming the rice in a cheesecloth parcel allows you to adapt the recipe to whatever steamer setup you have in your kitchen.
I'd argue that the best way to get to know a city is to eat your way across town. So when I moved to Chicago for a restaurant job, I'd spend my days off trying to find the best food each neighborhood had to offer. I'd make carnitas pilgrimages to Pilsen, treks down to Bridgeport for killer British meat pies, and spend whole afternoons eating dosas on Devon Avenue. But one of my all-time favorite food excursions is one I returned to time and again: a journey to the north side of the city for northern Thai food. I'd hit up a few spots, grabbing an order of grilled pork neck here, a fermented sausage there, and all the while falling in love with Thai sticky rice, the ubiquitous accompaniment than can cut through and temper a dish's heat just as well as it can serve as a delivery vehicle for dipping sauces, soups, and dressings.
Sticky rice, which is also known as "glutinous"* or "sweet" rice, is an essential ingredient in northern and northeastern Thai, as well as Lao, cuisine. It's used in countless sweet and savory applications, for dishes like coconut sticky rice with mango, or to make toasted rice powder for dipping sauces like jaew. In its most basic form, sticky rice is steamed and served as an integral accompaniment to a meal, with diners pulling off small pieces and molding it with their fingers to dip and scoop with as they eat.
*Not to be confused with glutenous! Glutinous describes the rice's level of amylopectin, a water-soluble component of starch. You can read more about grains and gluten in our guide to whole grains.
Most rice preparations that claim to be "steamed" are actually boiled in water. But Thai sticky rice (khao niao) is really and truly steamed, because it otherwise disintegrates when boiled. To ensure the grains cook and absorb moisture evenly, sticky rice first needs to be soaked and rinsed in water before cooking. Once steamed, the grains of glutinous rice become tender but maintain a distinct chewiness. And while they are indeed sticky, they maintain their individual structure and don't turn into a homogeneous paste when handled.
Sticky rice pairs incredibly well with grilled or roasted meats and fish, and it's great for soaking up assertive dipping sauces and broths. It's also a great side dish option for when you're entertaining and cooking for a crowd; it can be made ahead and will stay warm for a while, a little goes a long way, and it's made for sharing, forcing your dinner companions to get comfortable with each other as they tear off morsels for themselves. It's also very simple to make. Without the need to accurately measure water in relation to rice, I find making sticky rice by steaming it to be a lot less stressful than boiling rice on the stovetop. You just have to give it the soak-and-steam spa treatment.
4 cups (28 ounces; 800g) Thai sticky rice (see note)
In a large bowl, cover rice with cool water for at least 4 hours or up to overnight. Alternatively, to speed up the process, use hot water, and soak the rice for at least 2 hours.
Using a fine-mesh strainer, drain the rice, discarding the cloudy soaking water. Refill the bowl with cool water so that when the fine-mesh strainer is set inside it, the rice in the strainer is fully submerged under water. Using your hands, stir the rice in the strainer to release starch into the water, making it cloudy. Lift the strainer with the rice out of the bowl, and discard the soaking water. Repeat this process until the water in the bowl is mostly clear, about 3 more times. Rinsing off the excess starch in this manner ensures that the grains of rice remain separate when cooked, and don't steam into a clumpy brick.
Assemble a steamer (see note), filling the bottom with 1 to 2 inches of water, and lining the steamer basket with a double-layer of damp cheesecloth that has a 3-inch overhang over the sides of the basket. Transfer rice to cheesecloth-lined steamer basket, and use your hands to pat rice into an even layer. Fold overhanging cheesecloth over the rice to form a parcel, then cover with a lid.
Bring water in steamer to a boil over high heat, place steamer basket over it, and lower heat to a steady simmer. Cook for 10 minutes, then remove lid and carefully flip parcel of rice over so that the folded up bundle is now on the bottom. Cover again with lid, and continue to cook until rice is tender, but still chewy, about 10 minutes longer. Flipping the rice halfway through cooking ensures the rice cooks evenly, and it's most important to do when you're steaming a large amount of rice at once. If you're only cooking a couple cups of rice, you can skip the flip.
Remove from heat, and flip bundle over once more so that the folded over parts of cheesecloth are facing you. Transfer rice to a heatproof bowl and cover it with a plate (you can discard the cheesecloth at this point, or if you used a bamboo steamer and wish to use the steamer basket as a serving vessel, keep the rice in its cheesecloth parcel and unwrap it right before serving). Let rice cool slightly for 10 to 15 minutes before serving. Serve immediately.
Fine-mesh strainer, steamer, cheesecloth
Thai sticky rice (also sold as "sweet" and "glutinous" rice) can be found online and at Asian markets; other varieties of sticky short-grain rice, like sushi and risotto rice, will not work as a substitute here.
If you don't have a bamboo steamer, you can use a stainless steel steamer insert, or even a colander. If you have a traditional Thai sticky rice steamer, which looks a bit like an oversized pour-over coffee rig with a metal jug base and a bamboo basket instead of a filter, then obviously you don't need my help and you can carry on making sticky rice as usual.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Finished sticky rice will stay warm for about 1 hour, if covered. Sticky rice can be reheated in the microwave; cover and heat on low power, checking every 30 seconds, until warmed through.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 6 to 8|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 1g||1%|
|Saturated Fat 0g||1%|
|Total Carbohydrate 28g||10%|
|Dietary Fiber 0g||0%|
|Total Sugars 4g|
|Vitamin C 0mg||0%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|