Sticky rice is a beloved staple of the Lao diet par excellence. It performs a myriad of tasks: as practical carbohydrate, providing energy for the day’s work; as utensil by which all manner of other things are eaten; as an agent of fermentation in som moo, the cured pork sausages in nam khao; as the preferred offering to the spirit world; as a flavourful ingredient as toasted rice powder; as a ground flour used in noodles and coating for fried foods; as a component of many desserts; and even historically as a component of mortar. Officially the colours on the Laos flag have a different poetic nature, but they were once described to me as meaning: “red, for the blood of the people – blue for the water – and white for sticky rice.”
In the 1960’s and 1970’s much of Asia wholesale adapted new, improved-yield varieties of rice. In conjunction with the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the World Bank, new semi-dwarf varieties of rice were developed in the Philippines and in India. These had up to ten times the yield of traditional rice varieties. These improved varieties definitely helped curb famine and malnutrition, but saw the on the flip side saw the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides, dependency on irrigation, and weaker resilience to crop diseases. The verdict still is out on whether the Green Revolution was a net good, or a net evil for the world as a whole. Globally the population has increased about four-billion since the dawn of the Green Revolution, but with it there have been associated threats to biodiversity, tight corporate control of the global food system by companies like Monsanto, and a significant drop in the quality of available food.
Laos rejected these new varieties of rice based on one criteria: they weren’t sticky. The Laos government set up its own project to successfully develop high yield rice varieties that were sticky. While those high-yield varieties of rice did catch on, there are still many thousands of varieties of rice grown in Laos thanks to a cultural emphasis on diligent seed saving.
As falls in line with the Sheldon Principle of Lao Food, cooking sticky rice is not as simple as cooking other varieties of rice. First the rice must be soaked for several hours in water, and then steamed in a bambo basket called a houat. Afterward it must be laid out flat to release the steam. From there it can be rolled into balls.
The main characteristics of sticky rice that make it perfect for eating is that it is dry, not wet like other varieties would be when cooked. It also doesn’t stick to you, but sticks to itself as you form balls with it. These qualities have to do with the rice’s starch composition. In other kinds of rice starches have two components: amylose and amylopectin. Sticky rice has almost no amylose and lots of amylopectin, giving it its strange sticky quality.
Unlike other Asian countries where it enormous commercial rice paddies are the norm, Laos has very little arable land for commercial use and most of its population practices subsistence agriculture. Approximately 77% of Laotians are self-sufficient in rice. All the components of rice are on hand and find their way into a lot of different aspects of life. Chickens (proper yard-birds) are fed rice bran, and the rest of it is used to culture padaek. Therefore, rice is part of the home. It’s a fundamental, welcoming food that can properly be described as “super Laos.”