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The history of sticky rice

27 April 2023

The history of sticky rice

Everything you need to know about the wonderful Southeast Asian sticky rice

Sticky rice, or glutinous rice, is a very versatile food. It can be enjoyed by itself or as an accompaniment to an endless list of mains. It’s sweet, it’s savoury, and it’s somewhere in the middle. It’s enjoyed in countless countries and it’s one of our favourites. But where did it all start?

Where does sticky rice come from?

To find out where the sticky rice craze started, we have to travel back a few thousand years to Southeast Asia, along the marshy banks of the mighty Mekong River. Although many varieties of sticky rice (over 6,000), are known in the ancient histories of China, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Cambodia, its home is most commonly thought to be Laos, which is nestled between the lot.

Sticky rice is so important in Laos that it’s become part of the main religion, Theravada Buddhism. Laotians all over the country prepare dishes for important parts of life, which rice is tightly woven into, including rainfall, harvests, and even the death of family members. Rice dishes are placed in spirit houses, also common in the neighbouring countries, as offerings to Buddha. And rubbed on the faces of those who are very ill, thought to help ward off evil.

Sticky rice’s undeniable popularity 

Given sticky rice’s dense, starchy qualities, it’s great at preventing rumbly tummies. It’s also cheap to produce, readily available and very versatile. The sticky variety is a particular favourite of farmers working long hours with few opportunities for breaks, and monks, who in some instances, don’t eat after noon. Many say that it helps stave off hunger for longer, as it takes longer to digest than white rice.  

Why is sticky rice glutinous?

This glutinous term is a little bit of a red herring. Glutinous doesn’t mean the rice contains gluten – it doesn’t. Nor is it related to gluttonous, which is a different spelling relating to greed. It just means that the rice is glue-like. It differs from other types of rice as it contains unique types of starch. One is called amylose, which it has hardly any of – and the other is called amylopectin – which it has loads of.

The history of sticky rice

Why is Southeast Asian rice so sticky?

Generally speaking, long and medium-grain rice tends to fluff up and separate when cooked. Whereas short-grain rice will clump together. But why is that… what makes sticky rice sticky? To answer to that we’ll have to get a little bit sciencey

As we said above, sticky rice contains a type of starch called amylopectin, which is particularly good at retaining moisture and forming a gel-like substance when cooked in hot water or steamed. It’s this gel that makes sticky rice… stick. Perfect for dishes like sushi, rice cakes, and steamed rice dumplings. Or eaten all by itself.

In many parts of Southeast Asia, sticky rice is served plain in a small plastic bag, in a bamboo basket, or wrapped in a banana leaf. It’s also commonly used as a utensil, to scoop up other ingredients, thick sauces or pastes, soaking up all their delicious flavours at the same time.

How do you make sticky rice?

If you’re wondering how to do sticky rice at home, you’re in the right place. Or if you’re looking to get your sticky rice fix lickety-split, we sell a ready-to-heat pouch – perfect for sushi and poke bowls. If you’ve got a bit more time on your hands, and you’re wondering what kind of rice is best for sticky rice, we’d always recommend our fragrant jasmine rice.  

Regardless of how you intend to cook your sticky rice, be it on the hob or stove, in a steamer, or over an open fire, you have to soak it first. When sticky rice is soaked in water before it’s cooked, it can absorb even more moisture as it softens and swells. Look to set it aside in cool water for at least four hours (overnight is even better), so your rice can get soft and plump. And once you’ve done that, head over to our step-by-step guide to get the lowdown on how to make sticky rice.