Sticky rice of Vietnam or xoi (xôi) is made from cooked whole glutinous rice. This simple element goes well with various ingredients. Vietnamese people then serve it in different ways under specific names.
In Laos and Thailand, sticky rice is a main dish. However, Vietnamese xoi is mostly a breakfast staple or a base for snacks. It’s also essential in celebratory food trays including 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 starchy or sticky texture when cooked, and not dietary gluten content. This is why people also cook glutinous rice in different ways using it as ‘vegetarian glue’ in dishes.
It’s mostly Southeast and East Asia, Northeastern India, and Bhutan that grow glutinous strains of rice. You can mill it to remove the bran, or not mill it for a rougher, more fibrous texture.
Glutinous Rice in Vietnam
In Viet Nam, glutinous rice is an ingredient in sweet as well as savory cakes. The most popular being the traditional bánh chưng — Vietnamese square sticky rice cake.
They also steam and shape glutinous rice flour into other kinds of sweet or savory treats. The most popular example is the Vietnamese sweet soup called chè.
Traditional cooking of glutinous rice dishes includes simple steaming and sometimes additional frying. Vietnamese also ferment glutinous rice into various rice wines like rượu nếp, rượu cần, and rượu đế.
Xoi: Vietnamese Sticky Rice
According to researchers, Vietnamese people ate glutinous rice as a staple before non-glutinous rice a few thousand years ago. These were the predecessors of the Kinh — the largest ethnic group in Vietnam. Xoi thus became interwoven into Vietnamese culture also through folk tales and poems.
Originally, Vietnamese steamed the glutinous rice in big batches. They then put it on large trays and broke it 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, people have mostly replaced this wrapping 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. This is because they go well 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 xoi dishes is crispy fried shallots. People also use xoi to wrap chicken or meat for baking.
Colorful Sticky Rice
Plain xoi can also have appealing colors derived from organic ingredients. Xôi gấc, or red sticky rice, gets the color from gac. It’s 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. In this way, there are 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 glutinous rice spread with mayonnaise, liver pâté. Then, it’s topped with Vietnamese cured ham chả lụa, Chinese sausage lạp xưởng, pork floss, and boiled quail eggs.
When it comes to savory xoi 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 xoi dishes are coconut milk and coconut shavings. This was made popular by the Southern people. They also popularized a certain sprinkle which is a mixture of salt, sugar, 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. Additionally, they have jackfruit (xôi mít) and mango sticky rice (xôi xoài) which originate from Thailand.
Xoi Xeo and Xoi Vo
Glutinous rice and mung beans are a very common combination across all Vietnamese regions. People sometimes mistake xôi xéo of the North for xôi vò of the South, and vice versa. This is because both are yellow and include steamed milled mung beans.
People soak the sticky rice xôi xéo in turmeric water before steaming to give it color. Its toppings include diagonal (xéo in Vietnamese) slices of mung bean paste, spring onions, and crispy shallots.
Xôi vò is more simple in ingredients but more complex in technique. Vietnamese partially steam the glutinous rice and the mung beans separately then fluff them up.
Afterward, they mix everything together to evenly coat the grains with the mung bean powder. After the final cooking, the grains should separate and not stick together.
You can simply eat xôi vò as it is. However, the popular way is to squeeze it (vò in Vietnamese) into a lump and eat it with coconut milk.
Corn Sticky Rice
Corn sticky rice (xôi bắp) refers to a savory dish with corn kernels and glutinous rice. These are mixed together, steamed, 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. It’s especially popular in Myanmar and China, coming in many shapes and forms.
Laotians consume glutinous rice as part of their main diet. Additionally, glutinous rice takes up 80% of their rice production.
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. It’s also a common ingredient in sausage fillings.
Northeastern India is fairly similar to Vietnam. 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. However, they rarely eat it as a main dish. In Bangladesh, cooked glutinous 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 a common stuffing in samgyetang or ginseng chicken soup.
Japanese make okowa (おこわ – 強飯) by mixing glutinous rice with meat or vegetables and steaming it. They also shape it into onigiri or rice balls to store in the fridge.