Sticky rice (known as Khao Niao in Thai) is eaten as a staple in the Northern and North-Eastern “Issan” regions of Thailand. It is a hardy plant that grows well on the mountainous hillsides of the north and it requires much less water to grow than regular rice.
Sticky rice has a very high starch content and if it were to be prepared by boiling in water the grains would lose their individual cohesion and the result would be a kind of sticky mush. Instead sticky rice is prepared by soaking the uncooked grains in water for a few hours and then by placing in an enclosed, usually wicker, container over a pot of boiling water and steaming. The result is a cooked rice that whilst it has the adhesive exterior typical of sticky rice, keeps the individual rice grain shape.
Sticky rice is served alongside a meal in a conical wicker basket. One of the advantages of this serving technique is that it does away with the need for cutlery. The best way to eat sticky rice is to pull a lump off the main mass and roll it into a little ball. This can then be used to dip into either a spicy sauce or to dip into main dishes such as laap. It’s a pretty entertaining way to eat and is far less messy than you might imagine.
Khao Niao is grown in many countries in South-East Asia and is by far the most consumed rice in Laos. It has a very long heritage as well, having found to have been used in the construction of the mortar in the walls of the historical temples of Xian in China and, it is believed, in the Great Wall of China itself.
These days you can find sticky rice served all over Thailand in restaurants that offer or specialise in North-Eastern cuisine. Sticky rice flavoured and sweetened with coconut milk is also eaten as part of Thai dessert dishes such as sweet sticky rice and mango.