Isan (the Northeast region of Thailand) and Laos share many similarities. The language and culture of the two are so alike that many confuse one with the other. Another similar aspect between the two is the food, and in particular the main staple – sticky rice, which is also known as glutinous rice. Although it is synonymous with Northeast Thailand and Laos, sticky rice is also widely cultivated and consumed in Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines and in East Asia.
Sticky rice (known as Khao Niao in Thai and Lao and as Gao Nep in Vietnamese) has been cultivated for more than a millennium in the Southeast Asia region and over 2000 years in China. An estimated 85% of Lao rice production is of this type. Even when improved non-glutinous rice varieties were introduced through the Green Revolution in Asia in the mid-20th century, farmers still preferred their traditional sticky rice.
What makes sticky rice different from other types of rice is its texture. Although the grains remain whole after being cooked, it is stickier than regular rice while also being dry, rather than wet and gummy like non-glutinous varieties. Regular rice is boiled while sticky rice is steamed. Many people enjoy eating glutinous rice with their hands as it is easier to pull off a bite-size chunk and roll it into a ball. The rice ball is then dipped in a spicy sauce and/or consumed with accompanying meats or vegetables.
Sticky rice, when sweetened with coconut milk, can also be consumed as a dessert. This type of sticky rice is especially popular with mangoes and durians and is readily available throughout Thailand.
Sticky rice is cooked using a cone-shaped woven bamboo basket that almost looks like a conical hat. The bottom of the basket fits into a tall pot and a lid covers the top of the basket while the rice is being cooked over a burner. Added water produces steam that cooks the rice. The steam also helps keep the rice dry. The cooked sticky rice is then served in small round baskets with lids called Kra Tip or in small plastic bags, both intended to keep the rice warm by having some of the warm vapor circulating around the rice.
Sticky rice in Vietnam is typically served as a dessert or as a side dish. However, there are some dishes where the sticky rice is served in the main meal. Certain Banh dishes (Vietnamese cakes, buns, pastries or sandwiches) are made from glutinous rice. Xoi (sweet Vietnamese dish usually eaten as a dessert) and Che (sweet soup or pudding) also contain sticky rice.
When eating Isaan or Lao food, it is highly recommended to enjoy sticky rice with grilled chicken, larbs (spicy meat salad), Isaan sausages and spicy chili sauce made from fermented shrimp or fish. Vegetables and herbs that usually accompany Lao and Isaan meals can help ease the food’s spiciness.
Thailand, Laos and Vietnam are wonderful regions to visit if you are planning to come to Southeast Asia. The people are friendly, each country is filled with memorable sites and the food is just marvelous! Our Isaan Insight tour will take you on a unforgettable tour to this still relatively untouched region of Thailand. Discover the area’s unique culture and visit beautiful temples and serene national parks. You will, of course have many opportunities to savor the distinct taste of Isaan food. Exotissimo’s Overland Laos tour is a road trip to the country’s main attractions such as centuries old temples and imposing waterfalls. If you are in Vietnam and would like to learn how to prepare Vietnamese food, then our Cooking Class- Hanoi day tour is just for you. You can also see our suggested Thailand tours as well as our Laos tours and Vietnam tours for other memorable journeys into these wonderful and diverse countries.
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