Luck was losing patience, and his stomach was grumbling like the diesel engine of the bus transporting him to northern Laos. He needed to eat sticky rice, he said, so badly!
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He checked his cellphone: No service. Slumping into his seat, he looked out the windows — but it was mid-November in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, and in field after field, Laotian farmers were harvesting sticky rice and burning the discarded husks for fertilizer. Luck sighed. The smoky air carried a sweet, ricey aroma.
It was the first day of a six-day, northbound journey from Vientiane, the tranquil capital, to a remote village near the Laos-China border. Luck — short for Vilayluck Onphanmany — is my 23-year-old Laotian friend and translator whom I’d met on my first of three previous trips to the landlocked Southeast Asian country. He was assisting a gastronomic investigation: a friend and I were on a mission to learn the secrets of sticky rice, the mainstay of Laotian cuisine, and in the process, to eat as much of it as possible.
When our bus rattled into a dusty market, a group of women crowded the windows. “Ao khao bor?” they called (“Do you want sticky rice?”). Luck snapped to attention and called for two bags — one for me and my traveling companion, and one for himself. We ate with our hands, Laotian-style. Luck finished his portion before the bus started rolling.
“I feel better!” he said, and promptly dozed off. Other passengers were either eating sticky rice or, like Luck, sleeping it off.
What explains the national love of sticky rice? Many Laotians laughed when I asked them. Sticky rice is what their grandparents and great-grandparents ate, they said. Perhaps they were caught off guard by my question: like baguettes in France and sushi in Japan, sticky rice is so ingrained in Laos’ culinary heritage that most Laotians don’t think about it in isolation.
Sticky, or “glutinous,” rice has been growing in mainland Southeast Asia for at least 4,000 years. Historians debate whether ancient farmers grew sticky rice because it was suited to local growing conditions or because they liked its taste and chewy texture. What’s clear is that, by the 18th century, sticky rice had been largely replaced across the region by varieties of non-glutinous rice, a.k.a. “white rice.”
But sticky rice is still the primary staple in Laos parts of the five countries bordering it: China, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. In Laos, slightly larger in area than Utah, per-capita sticky rice consumption is the highest on earth at more than 345 pounds per year. The average American, by contrast, eats less than 20 pounds of rice annually, according to the United States Drug Administration.
Urbanization, migration and other forces are altering rice-consumption habits across Laos, says historian Grant Evans, to the point where some urban dwellers now associate sticky rice with “country bumpkin ways of eating.” But Evans, the author of several books about Laos, also says he doesn’t know a single Laotian person who never eats sticky rice. From a cultural perspective, he explained, sticky rice is still “the way the Lao identify themselves.” Case in point: as of the mid-1990s, a popular Laotian band in the United States was calling itself Khao niaw — the Laotian words for, sure enough, sticky rice.
The dish comes in various shapes and sizes — a recent agricultural research project on rice in Laos involved more than 13,000 rice samples, more than 11,000 of them glutinous — but the basic method of consuming khao niaw is the same countrywide. Harvested sticky rice grains, which are typically shorter and fatter than non-glutinous ones, are soaked overnight, steamed in the morning and eaten all day.