Samui Wining & Dining
Stick it to Me

A close look at rice, Thai rice – and sticky rice in particular!

 

8It was only a generation or two back that the potato was the staple of Western cuisine. The humble spud was to be universally found in dishes as diverse as Irish stew, German kartoffel salat, Lithuanian grated potato pudding, Silesian szalot, Peruvian salchipapas; and then there were chips, fries, and more fries. You could boil ’em, you could roast ’em, you could bake, grill or toast ’em – it seems that there was no way you couldn’t cook a potato. But, somewhere in the ’70s, Chinese and Indian restaurants began to flourish in the West. And, somewhere in the ’90s, it seems that the entire First World went all health and diet-conscious at around about the same time. Which meant that more and more people turned to rice as a healthy alternative.

      Quite rightly so. Untreated brown rice contains 11 minerals, eight vitamins and is 10% protein. Whereas the average uncooked potato is 79% water to begin with, has only 2% protein, and barely a trace of anything else except for potassium, plus just a tad of vitamin C. Notice I said ‘uncooked’ potato. Rice and potatoes share two things in common – all the goodness is on the outside, in the husk or the skin. (The other thing is that under the skin both are more or less entirely composed of carbohydrate, in the form of starch.) Thus baked potatoes with the skins intact are quite good for you – but peel them and then cook them and there’s nothing much left behind, only bulk. And it’s the same with rice.

       Today every health-conscious individual puts brown rice high on their dietary lists. Even when boiled the husks retain their nutrients and are high in fibre. However, over here in Thailand, there’s quite a different outlook – the entire culture is different. Here, for instance, something as simple as a healthy suntan is to be avoided at all costs. It’s only the farmers and the labourers, who have to go out in the sun all day, who end up with a tan. Thus being white is a symbol of social standing. Continuing this thinking, white rice that has been milled and had the husks removed is more expensive than the plain brown rice – plus it’s nice and white and ‘clean’. (It’s only the prisoners in the jails and the poor people who have to eat the ‘cheap and dirty’ brown rice.) So when you hunt on the shelves of the shops and supermarkets in Thailand you’ll only ever see milled white rice. And it’s something of an irony that Thailand, one of the world’s biggest rice-producers, does sell long-grain, multi-grain and wild rice, but it’s all imported! And vastly more expensive than the local (milled, white) stuff.

      So there we have it. Thailand is a nation of white rice eaters. Go into any Thai supermarket and you’ll see gigantic ten-kilogram sacks of white or off-beige rice – sometimes even bigger, up to 25 kilos – stocked and waiting to be bought. But what isn’t so obvious is that not every bag contains the same sort of rice. In the same way that we have 50 different sorts of spuds, so there are different strains of rice. But when you realise that, to a Thai person, one potato is much the same as the next (and will probably be only ever eaten as a French fry anyway) then you’ll appreciate that there are dozens of subtle shades of rice. Some people prefer one; others are drawn to another. It’s merely horses for courses and all grist to the (rice) mill. Which brings us on to the subject of sticky rice.

       Over here we have plain boiled rice – khao plao – khao being the word for ‘rice’ and plao meaning ‘plain’ or ‘ordinary’. And then, speaking on a day-to-day Thai restaurant basis, we also have the universal sticky rice – khao nee-ow (this one meaning ‘sticky’ or ‘glutinous’). Plain white rice is what you’ll get everywhere with your food. But sticky rice is different. It’s a different strain of rice, it looks different, it’s used differently and it tastes different. It’s very-often used along with fruit to make khanom – snacks, sweets or desserts. And you’ll never, ever see it along with the main dishes – unless you live in the northeast . . . or visit an Issan restaurant.

      The people from Laos share a great many cultural elements with the people of northeast Thailand – a region known as ‘Issan’. It’s a poor area, a region of farmers, drought, and comparative poverty. It’s a region from which nearly all of the young people want to get away– it’s no co-incidence that the majority of Thai workers on Samui (and all the other tourist areas) have come here from Issan to find work. In Issan the culture is quite different. The language and dialect is different. So is the music and the instruments. The diet – dare it be called ‘cuisine’? – is far more basic. The approach to dining is different. And the sort of rice and the way it’s used is different, too.

      People sit on the floor to eat, around a central mat onto which a variety of dishes is placed. (You’ll see this happen with the Issan in-laws of a Westerner, in a fitted Euro-kitchen, complete with all stainless-steel machines and a polished teak dining table and chairs that have been pushed to one side – this has been known to occasionally drive men to the pub, if not to the point of insanity.) No utensils are used; people sit cross-legged and eat with their hands. They use the sticky rice as a kind of ‘wrap’, rolling it into a ball, banging it flat, and using this rice-pad folded between their fingers to scoop up the food (soups excluded).

     But here, on Samui, even in an Issan restaurant, you won’t always see this kind of rice used in this way. It’s nearly always mixed in with fruit and sometimes ice-cream – mango or/and coconut flesh is common – and eaten as a sweet dessert or snack. And it’s quite delicious. The gummy texture of the rice is offset by the smoothness and flavour of the fruit, which blends into the whole ‘mouth feel’, making it something to be experienced whilst here. So give it a try. Whether with fingers or using a spoon, it’s a memory which will cling to you long after you’ve left Thailand!

         

Rob De Wet


 


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