Hardly a Laotian meal is served sans the national staple known as khao niew, or glutinous rice. Just as how its stickiness binds together the individual grains of rice – khao niew also ties ethnic Lao across the world to their ancestral heritage and homeland.
In terms of per capita rice consumption, Laos trails only Bangladesh (by a very slim margin) with a whopping 256 kg (564 lb) of rice eaten annually. Compare that with the UK average of under 8 kg (17.6 lb) per person, and one can understand the vital role rice plays in the Lao diet.
Of the total rice consumed in this Southeast Asian country, nearly two-thirds is of the sticky variety. In fact, glutinous rice is so ingrained in every Laotian’s daily life that they refer to themselves as luk khao niew, or ‘children of the sticky rice’.
How Sticky Rice is Eaten
Unlike its white, non-sticky counterpart which is often consumed with chopsticks or a spoon, all that is required for sticky rice is your bare hands. One typically forms a grape-sized ball of rice, and much like bread, either dips it into sauce or scoops out morsels of meat and vegetables from the main dishes. Khao niew pairs perfectly with nearly all Lao cuisine, including two of its most prominent national dishes, som tam (green papaya salad) and larb (minced meat salad).
Note that because the majority of people living in Thailand’s north-eastern Isan region identify as ethnic Lao, there is a considerable overlap in cuisine throughout both regions. Sticky rice, however, is generally not mixed with the various curries, soups or stir-fried dishes of central Thailand.
Khao Niew’s Nutritional Values
Other than its adhesiveness, perhaps sticky rice’s most notable attribute is its chewy texture – akin to the rubbery consistency of gummy bears. And despite its name, glutinous rice is safe for those with gluten sensitivity.
Compared to other types of rice, khao niew has a higher content of sugar, calories and carbohydrates, the latter of which is required to fuel the long days of strenuous field work. Its longer digestion process also aids in satiating hunger levels for physical labourers as well as Buddhist monks, whose last meal of the day is lunch.
Preparation of Sticky Rice
Planning for the next day’s meals is essential when preparing sticky rice. After an initial washing, the rice is soaked in water overnight. The batch needs to be large enough to feed the household for the entire day, while not being so excessive that a sizeable portion goes to waste.
Prior to the meal, the glutinous rice is placed into a specially-shaped woven bamboo basket and pot (pictured, above-right). After steaming for 20 minutes, the rice is then served in cylindrical bamboo containers with lids, known as lao aep khao.
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