My childhood memories of food are mostly heartwarming and pleasant. Certain recipes remind me of home; certain smells stir up overwhelming emotions. For this reason, a lot of my articles will end up being about food.
But not all of my experiences have been positive.
One of my chores growing up was to steam the sticky rice every morning, and I hated it. If you are not familiar with sticky (also called glutinous) rice, it is a staple of every Lao household. You can buy it at Asian grocery stores. We eat Jasmine rice too, but for me it was never quite as filling. There is something much more satisfying about grabbing a handful of sticky rice, shaping it in your hands, and pulling off a chunk to dip in spicy sauce or some kind of broth.
Now, I’m sure other Lao youngsters were forced to steam the rice in the morning, and maybe not all of them hated it as much as I did. But if they were subjected to my mother’s standards, they will understand my aversion. For one thing, you have to wake up SUPER early to get it done before school/work. It is eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, so it must be ready for consumption throughout the day. Secondly, steaming sticky rice, the way it was taught to me, is not a simple matter of Throw the Rice in the Basket and Walk Away. Allow me to illustrate:
Step 1: Soak the rice for at least an hour, usually overnight.
Step 2: Fill the steaming pot just under halfway. Place on hot stove.
Step 3: Rinse the rice, at least 3 times, gently massaging the rice between rinses. Unclean rice will turn yellow as it cooks.
Step 4: Moisten the steaming basket. While the water is running, scoop handfuls of rice into the basket. Rinse out any grains that remain in the bowl and wash into the basket. Also, wash the sides of the basket clean. DO NOT WASTE ANY OF IT.
Step 5: Place basket on steamer pot. If you are in a hurry, they also make bamboo covers that will capture the steam and accelerate cooking. Sometimes I just use a pot lid.
Step 6: After about 10-15 minutes, the rice grains will start to look translucent instead of opaque. This next part can be tricky, especially if you are clumsy. Holding the two higher edges of the bamboo basket, flip the sticky rice until the top end is now on the bottom. It should all move together in one big clump. If it doesn’t, you haven’t cooked it long enough.
Step 7: After 5 more minutes, turn off the stove. Have a slightly damp surface ready, onto which you will dump the rice. I like to use this bamboo tray:
Step 8: Using a damp wooden spoon or chopsticks, spread the rice out so that the steam can escape.
Step 9: Fold the entire mass together once the steam has slowed. With your hands (also slightly damp), shape into a ball. Quickly (because it’s probably still hot), grab the ball of rice and place into this handy bamboo rice cylinder:
It sounds like a lot of steps, but it is actually quite simple, once you get used to it. However, I rarely made it to Steps 6-9. I would become absorbed in morning cartoons or some other distraction and, next thing you know, the house is filled with smoke and Mom is yelling at me. You see, one of the cardinal rules of sticky-rice-making is Do Not Let the Water Boil Down. If you forget about the rice pot, the water will eventually evaporate completely (science!). Once that happens, the bottom of the aluminum pot will scorch. Leave it on even longer (which I have done) and the flames will burn a hole clear through. Metal will melt all over your mother’s gas range. In both scenarios, the basket will scorch, and your father will not have rice when he comes home for lunch.
I should add here that my mom is a sweet lady who tries to help everyone she knows. I imagine she was at a loss at times, struggling to raise me as she had been raised. I received 2 major rice-burning-related spankings in my life. The third time I burned the rice pot, Mom had already gone to work. I think I was 13 years old. My sponsor, Mr. Newton, was taking me to Emory Clinic that day. He was picking me up after my morning chores. Panicking, I quickly developed a brilliant plan: on the way back from Emory, I would ask Mr. Newton to stop at the Asian grocer and purchase a new set with my tiny allowance. It went smoothly but I knew I couldn’t hide a brand new pot and basket. I had to tell Mom.
When she came home, I told her what happened and quickly showed the new items. I knew my sense of responsibility would win her over, and it did. To my surprise, she laughed and went to the cabinet, pulling out another brand new set. I still probably would have gotten a spanking, had I not gone through all that trouble.
Recently, I asked her if she remembers my pot-burning mishaps, and she denies they ever happened. But I have at least two other people who can corroborate my story.
Anyway, that was the last time I burned the rice pot.