Our previous post on glutenous rice introduced the most important plant in Lao cooking, with it’s varied applications and cultural significance. From that plant the most important preparation in Lao cooking, khao niao (pronounced cow neil), is prepared. Khao niao is the plain, unseasoned steamed sticky rice, used as an affordable filler and utensil in almost every meal (except noodle soups).

“You know how there’s a thing about fresh bread in the morning? With Lao people that’s sticky rice. You smell it waking up and have it fresh with your eggs in the morning.”

A Lao breakfast of sticky rice, a salt cured egg, jerky, and tomato jeow.

If anyone wants to cook Lao food they have to learn how to make sticky rice. It’s essential. While padaek is the other iconic ingredient, many recipes can be made using fish sauce as a substitute for it – not so with sticky rice. There’s no substitute, and it is used not only as the means of consumption but as an ingredient in many things. Leftover khao niao is used as a thickener in stews, the culture for the fermented sausage sam moo, and is eaten on its own in a variety of different ways.

There’s always debate on the best way, but a base recipe for khao niao is as follows.

How to make khao niao

Use 1 cup of glutenous rice per serving.

First, wash the sticky rice in cold water. Do this at least once, and up to three times – this helps remove the extra starch. Then soak the sticky rice for at least one hour up to over night. Sticky rice must be soaked or it won’t cook.

After its been soaked, strain the rice from the water and put it in a steamer basket. Lao people use a woven bamboo steamer basket called a houad which is conical and fits into a steam pot called a maw nung that’s tall and curvaceous. You can use any steamer you have, so long as the rice won’t fall through into the water. Fill the steamer pot with a about three fingers of water, making sure that when the basket is put on top it is not submerged at all.

Steam the rice covered for 20 to 40 minutes (variations depend on soaking time). Remove the lid and check to see if the top is cooked. It will be sticky if it is. Use a wooden spoon and stir the rice. Remove it from the steamer and transfer it into a rice warmer. Reheat the rice in a steam basket for about 10 minutes.

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