Sticky rice, also known as glutinous rice or sweet rice, is a variety of rice grown mainly in Southeast and East Asia, and eaten throughout the Asian continent. It becomes sticky when cooked, and has a slightly sweet flavour, which makes it a popular ingredient in both sweet and savoury dishes. The name ‘glutinous rice’ comes from its glue-like quality, and is not a reference to gluten. In fact, like most types of rice, sticky rice is gluten free.
Some people try to mimic the texture of sticky rice by soaking regular rice for long periods of time, but the results are never quite the same as using true sticky rice. The reason for this is the unique composition of the starches in a grain of sticky rice.
Starch is made of two components, amylopectin and amylose. In rice, amylopectin makes the grains fluffy and well-separated, while amylose makes them stick together. Most rice contains a relatively balanced amount of these two substances, but sticky rice contains almost no amylopectin and is particularly high in amylose, with the result being the naturally super-sticky rice we all know and love.
You can recognise sticky rice grains because they are opaque in appearance, with a milky white colour, while other types of rice tend to be more translucent. There are several different varieties of sticky rice, including japonica and indica.
Although it is eaten in many Asian countries, in the west it tends to be associated with Thai cuisine. For many people, sticky rice is the rice of choice for any Thai dish, including Thai curries and stir-fries. Interestingly, however, sticky rice is rarely eaten with these dishes in Thailand, because sticky rice is more popular in northern Thailand, while coconut-based curries and stir-fries are regional dishes from the south.
For an authentic Thai experience, try sticky rice with northern dishes like green papaya salad (som tam) or beef dishes like koi khuaneua and laab. Elsewhere, it is used as a stuffing in Chinese duck dishes and is a key ingredient in shumai and zongzi dumplings.
If you want to try sticky rice for yourself, it is available from Chinese and Asian markets, and some larger stores may also stock it. Uncooked sticky rice should be stored in a cool, dry place, and well-sealed to prevent any moisture getting in.
How to Make Sticky Rice
Ingredients (to feed 4 people)
2 cups of sticky rice
Place the sticky rice in a large bowl and cover with water. The water line should be at least 3 inches (7.5cm) above the rice to allow for it to expand.
Leave the rice to soak overnight, or for a full 24 hours if you have time. This will make the rice soft and fluffy, and stop it from sticking together in a big clump when it’s cooked.
After soaking, drain the water away. There is no need to shake excess water from the rice, as it will get wet in the steamer anyway.
Next, prepare your choice of steamer. You can use a traditional bamboo steamer or a metal steamer. If you don’t have either of these, you can create your own using a large pan to hold the water, a heat-proof dish to hold the rice, and an empty tuna can or steaming rack to hold the plate out of the water. You may also wish to line your steamer or plate with parchment paper or steamer liner so they’re easier to clean afterwards.
Arrange the rice in a thin, even layer on your steamer or plate, cover, and steam for 30-45 minutes. If you are preparing a lot of sticky rice, you will need to steam for longer, or separate into two batches. Check the rice to see if it is cooked and steam for longer if necessary.
Keep the rice covered inside the steamer until it’s ready to serve, to keep it moist.
In Thailand, sticky rice is used in desserts as well as main courses, and a simple fresh fruit dessert made with sticky rice is a real treat in the summer.
This easy coconut rice with mango slices is a great place to start. It takes just a handful of ingredients to make this delicious bowl of sticky rice with a sweet coconut milk sauce, topped with fresh slices of ripe mango.
If you want to add more fruit to your dessert, try this recipe for sweet sticky rice with fruit. The rice is cooked in creamy coconut milk and topped with diced mango and nectarine.