Sticky rice of Vietnam or xoi (xôi) is made from simply cooked whole glutinous rice. It’s then combined with other ingredients and served in different ways under specific names.
Unlike Laos or Thailand where it’s a main dish, Vietnamese xoi is mostly used as a breakfast staple or in snacks. It’s also essential in celebratory food trays‒ especially coming-of-age, engagement, and wedding ceremonies.
Sticky Rice or Glutinous Rice
Glutinous rice (gạo nếp), either cooked or not, is also called sticky rice. The term ‘glutinous’ refers to the rice becoming quite starchy or sticky when cooked, and not dietary gluten content. This starch is often used as a vegetarian glue in dishes.
Glutinous rice is mainly grown in Southeast and East Asia, Northeastern India, and Bhutan. It can either be milled to remove the bran, or unmilled with a rougher, fibrous texture.
Glutinous Rice in Vietnam
In Viet Nam, glutinous rice is used to make sweet as well as savory cakes. The most popular being the traditional bánh chưng‒ Vietnamese square sticky rice cake. Glutinous rice flour is also steamed and shaped into small kinds of sweet or savory treats, which are put into especially the Vietnamese sweet soup called chè.
Traditional cooking of glutinous rice dishes includes simple steaming and sometimes additional frying. Glutinous rice can also be fermented into various rice wines like rượu nếp, rượu cần, and rượu đế.
Xoi: Vietnamese Sticky Rice
According to researchers, the predecessor of the Kinh— the biggest ethnic group in Vietnam— ate glutinous rice as a staple before non-glutinous rice a few thousand years ago. Xoi thus became interwoven into Vietnamese culture also through folk tales and poems.
Originally, the sticky rice was steamed in big batches, put on large trays, and broken up to cool. This practice later led to Vietnamese people fluffing up cooked rice before scooping it into bowls.
The first sellers of xoi were street vendors with their carrying poles (gánh). Traditional wrapping for xoi used to be banana or lotus leaf for extra fragrance.
However, this wrapping has mostly been replaced with styrofoam boxes and plastic bags for convenience. You can still find the natural wrapping at some vendors, especially ones that have been around for many years.
Sticky Rice Varieties
Sticky rice, along with bánh mì, are essentials of Vietnamese street food because they can be combined with almost anything. There is a plethora of Vietnamese xoi stemming from distinct weather, agriculture, and taste preferences of each region.
A common, but also quite unique, topping for both savory and sweet sticky rice dishes is crispy fried shallots. Xoi can also be used to wrap chicken or meat for baking.
Colorful Sticky Rice
Plain sticky rice can also have appealing colors derived from organic ingredients. Xôi gấc or red sticky rice gets the color from gac, a perennial melon first discovered in Vietnam. Its color makes it suitable for festivities as mentioned above.
Xôi lá cẩm gets the purple color from magenta leaves. Pandan leaves give xôi lá dứa its green. Xôi ngũ sắc originates from the Northern Highland and adds yellow from turmeric to get five colors in total.
Savory Xoi Dishes
Probably the most iconic Vietnamese savory sticky rice dish is xôi mặn‒ which literally just means ‘savory sticky rice’. It’s a bed of plain steamed sticky rice spread with mayonnaise, liver pâté, then topped with Vietnamese cured ham chả lụa, Chinese sausage lạp xưởng, pork floss, and boiled quail eggs.
When it comes to savory sticky rice dishes, the main choice of protein can be anything available. This includes different cold cuts, roasted pork, char siu, shredded pork or chicken, and boiled or fried chicken drumsticks. Depending on your appetite, you can always up the amount of your topping.
Sweet Xoi Dishes
Two common components in Vietnamese sweet sticky rice dishes are coconut milk and coconut shavings made popular by the Southern people. It’s also usually sprinkled on with a mixture of salt, sugar, crushed peanuts, and sesame seeds.
Popular combinations include cassava (xôi sắn), peanuts (xôi lạc), and red or black beans. There are also fruity choices like durian sticky rice (xôi sầu riêng) from the south, or jackfruit (xôi mít) and mango sticky rice (xôi xoài) which originate from Thailand.
Xoi Xeo and Xoi Vo
Sticky rice and mung beans are a very common combination across all Vietnamese regions. Xôi xéo of the North can be mistaken for xôi vò of the South, and vice versa, because they are both yellow and include steamed milled mung beans.
The sticky rice xôi xéo gets its color from being soaked in turmeric water before steaming. It’s then served with diagonal (xéo in Vietnamese) slices of mung bean paste, spring onions cooked in oil, and crispy shallots.
Xôi vò is more simple in ingredients but more complex in technique. The sticky rice and the mung beans are partially steamed separately, and then fluffed up. Afterward, they are mixed well together until the grains are evenly coated with the mung bean powder.
After the final cooking, the grains should be separated and not sticking together. You can eat xôi vò as it is or squeezed (vò in Vietnamese) together into a lump and eaten with coconut milk.
Corn Sticky Rice
Corn sticky rice (xôi bắp) refers to a savory dish with corn kernels and glutinous rice mixed together and steamed. It’s then served with spring onions cooked in oil and small salty fried shrimps. There’s also a sweet xôi bắp but it doesn’t actually contain glutinous rice.
Sticky Rice in Different Countries
Southeast and East Asian countries also have their own sticky rice variations. Laotians consume glutinous rice as part of their main diet and it takes up 80% of their rice production. It’s especially popular in Myanmar and China coming in many shapes and forms.
Northern and northeastern Thais traditionally eat glutinous rice as a staple. For savory dishes, they like to steam the sticky rice then grill over a charcoal fire or deep-fry to get a crispy texture. It’s also used for sausage fillings.
Northeastern India is fairly similar to Vietnam where they use cooked sticky rice as a core component of Assamese sweets, snacks, breakfast, and meals during religious ceremonies. Indonesians use it for a variety of sweet, savory, and fermented snacks but rarely as a main dish.
In Bangladesh, cooked sticky rice is usually eaten with curry for savory and coconut or banana for sweet. Malaysia also has their own sweet and savory sticky rice preparations. In Korea, glutinous rice is used as stuffing in samgyetang or ginseng chicken soup.
Japanese okowa (おこわ – 強飯) is made from mixing glutinous rice with meat or vegetable which are then steamed. It can also be shaped into onigiri or rice balls to store in the fridge.