Khao Niaw before dawn at the restaurant shacks bus station Oudomxai
I’m surprised I didn’t write something about khao niaw before this. Rice is the basis for food itself in Laos, so much so that the expression to eat is gin khao which might loosely be translated as consume rice.
The comparison for westerners that springs to mind is bread, if you could imagine bread being almost all the calories we eat. The following is a poem taught to infants similar to the way we teach patty cake patty cake.
Dtop meu xa
Dtop meu xa
Gin khao gap plah
Gin khao gap plah
Clap your hands,
Clap your hands,
Eat rice with fish,
Eat rice with fish.
Kids love it. It’s perhaps the first taught activity they hear. They like to clap their hands before they can walk or talk.
Loading rice at the fast boat landing below Luang Prabang
Fish means anything that lives in the water, minnows, fresh water crabs, insects, whatever. Everyone always has rice, then they go out into the river with a net and get fish. Without rice, life becomes a desperate struggle of digging bamboo shoots to try to get enough calories from starch to survive. If you talk to older people they can remember doing just that in the lean years following the end of the war when Laos closed it’s borders and experimented with collectivization.
Khao Jao left, Khao Niaw right
If you look at the rice above you can see a difference between the two varieties. The rice on the left you can see through, it’s translucent, the rice on the right is more white and dense. When digging through the rice bins that’s how I tell them apart. Regular rice is lighter, you can see through it, khao niaw is more thick and dense.
Sticky rice is denser but by weight has the same calories as regular. Other than the affluent people in town everyone eats khao niaw, except for mountain people. Mountain rice isn’t grown in paddies but on burnt hillsides. The mountain rice, and all other rices are called Khao Jhao. Jasmine rice is simply a high grade of Thai rice, similar rices are grown in Laos but in much smaller quantities.
Second rice crop above Xiengkok
I like the mountain rice in that it has a nutty flavour. I think the taste comes from the fact that the milling is done by hand using one of those foot powered coke and sats. Small pieces of the husk up near the top and on the side of the grain are left on the rice. If you look carefully you can see them.
Mountain rice at 1200 meters just above Nambo
Getting back to the subject at hand… Khao Niaw cost about a half a dollar or a little more per kilo when I left Laos in March of 07, cooked or uncooked. It costs so little that my wife used to send me down to the market to buy it for dinner if we had unexpected numbers of people. I also buy it to eat when traveling, it can be eaten hours later and is still good, or many hours later if there is no place open when the late bus gets in. The many hours later kind is a little dried and hardened but still edible.
Talk of carrying it brings me to the implements for cooking and carrying khao niaw. There are three necessary utensils that can’t be substituted.. A pot to boil the water, a basket for steaming, and a basket for storing cooked rice. I’ve heard of people cooking in a regular rice steamer, I don’t believe it, seems like if there were a way to do it well the Laotians in America would have switched long ago. Reheating with a microwave doesn’t cut it either. All that does is heat it up, it’s not moistened from the steam, and it quickly dries out when it cools down.
That same bus station restaurant in Udomxai, she's brewing up my coffee.
There is something about the shape of the pot that allows water to be heated quickly and with a lot of steam concentrating the steam at the top of the pot and forcing it through the cone basket. I suggest anyone wanting to cook sticky rice take a look at the video on the Thai Lao Food Blog.
Scroll half way down the page for the video. Notice she uses a pot lid to cover the top of the cone? My wife bought a bamboo cover while in Laos. It sits on top of the cone similar to a lid but it allows the steam to escape, just keeps it there a little longer, and you avoid getting water dripping on the rice, don’t want soggy rice, oh no.
If you are looking at the video watch the flip, essential. Notice too how the rice doesn’t stick to the sides of the cone. That’s a broken in cone, when new they tend to stick. I like the plastic ones sold by the Hmong people for just that reason but my wife prefers bamboo. Says she doesn’t want a bunch of plastic in her food. I think she whets down the cone for a little bit before steaming to avoid the sticky rice sticking to the cone syndrome.
In the video that’s a tiny amount of rice, I typically steam about three of four times that much for a day.
Also on the Thai Lao video the writer, Ms. Larprom, tells how to reheat the left over rice from the last batch. In Lao households cooking and reheating rice is an ongoing process. Rice is often cooked more than three times a day, often just to heat it up. Hot rice is definitely preferable to cold rice. Rice can be recooked up to three times, after that it begins to turn into a glob of wallpaper paste.
The last but one of the most important parts of the cooking is allowing the rice to air and give off it’s steam. In her video Manivan uses a storage basket to stir it in. People who cook a lot of rice such as for a family often have so much rice they use a flat bamboo platter and a wooden spoon or chop sticks to lift the rice and let it fall apart. I think the reason is not only to stop it from cooking but to allow all the steam to escape rather than cooling when it reaches the outside of the pile of rice. A friend once described the process as pulling the rice apart such that if there were a lost ring in the rice it would be found.
After airing for the few seconds it takes the rice to cool it is piled loosely into a rice basket and covered with the top. There is a reason why rice baskets are woven bamboo. They keep the heat in and slow the escape of moisture but allow enough water vapour to escape so that you don’t get slimy rice. Rice kept in a plastic bag doesn’t keep as long.