Of Strangers, Relatives, and… Rice

Growing up as a kid, we didn’t eat rice very much. In fact, I’m pretty sure there were only three ways of using the stuff, for us: In a stuffed-pepper hotdish, and in two dubious concoctions one of my older siblings dreamed up: Chicken Noodle and Rice soup (made by adding a handful of instant rice to a can of soup) and Tomato Soup with Rice (made by adding as much instant rice as possible to a can of tomato soup).

Yes, yes. We were a very sad slice of middle America.

Well, in the last couple of decades, rice has become a major staple of my household’s diet. Gone is the bland and tasteless instant rice; here in its stead is the delicious and aromatic long-grain jasmine rice. Oh, sometimes there’s sushi rice, or an even shorter-grained glutinous rice, but we pretty much use jasmine rice for everything, these days.

Recently, I was over at the Hmong Village, which I’ve written about before here. It’s an enormous Hmong bazaar and produce market, complete with a very sizable food court. (It may actually be the largest food court in Saint Paul itself, physically, come to think of it.) I’m usually there one or two times a week, buying produce. I’ll stop for lunch once a month, maybe twice. This was one of those times.

I got one of the mysterious but delicious “Hmong sausages”, with chile-based dipping sauce, and around a pound of “sticky rice”. What the- you ask, but you can easily be forgiven for not having heard of it before. It’s a staple of Hmong cooking, and one that’s pretty much unique to them, as far as I can tell.

Basically, what you do is cook some black rice – a glutinous, short-grained rice that’s, yep, black – in more water than is necessary, until it’s soft and cooked. Then you discard the black rice (no, really) and cook up a batch of regular short-grained glutinous rice in the water, like you normally would. End result is a really sticky short-grained rice that’s been dyed a dark purple.

Well, I get my order, and I find an empty table, which is a but of luck, because I’m there right around noon, and the food court is packed. I sit down and start in on my rice – and we’ll get to that in a minute – and a polite young Hmong woman comes up and asks if she and her mother can sit across from me. Sure, I say, not a problem. It’s not; I’m actually kind of flattered, because in an environment where it seems like everybody knows everybody else, we few non-Hmong folk can sometimes feel a bit, y’know, isolated.

So, they come over and sit down; they’re waiting for their order from one of the restaurants to be ready. They’re talking to each other in, y’know, Hmong, and I’m politely ignoring them, when the younger of the two asks me “Where’d you get that from?” I name the restaurant, and she goes “Huh. I’ve never seen rice like that before.

I know what you’re thinking – what, Nemo knows more about Hmong cooking than some actual bona-fide Hmong woman? Um, no. Never going to happen. “Really?” I say to her. “That’s a relief. I thought it was a little unusual myself”, and then mention that I was pretty sure sticky rice was always made with short-grain, glutinous rice.

“Yeah,” she agrees. “I’ve never seen it made with jasmine rice before, either.”

We discussed food for a little while, and eventually agreed someone had probably screwed up when making the rice that morning, while still half-asleep or something, and since it was perfectly edible, there was no point wasting it. I can’t really recommend sticky rice made that way, to be honest – to my tastes, the black rice flavor doesn’t really complement that of jasmine rice, and jasmine rice is thinner and firmer than the usual glutinous rice, which made for a somewhat different eating experience.

Anyway, it was a fun little moment of cross-cultural bonding, brought on by the universal language of food, or something like that. It was also one of the few times I’ve been there that I’ve not felt at least a little bit like an outsider. (Nothing mean-spirited or racist intended. The Hmong Village is an extremely friendly and welcoming place, believe me. It’s just, not to sound too emo or anything, most of the time I can manage to feel like an outsider while alone at home, hanging out with friends, or at a family get-together…)

Rice, isn’t it wonderful? 🙂

(Incidentally, my siblings’ method of making Tomato Soup and Rice is crude but simple: Open can of tomato soup. Pour into small saucepan. Put on stove. Light stove. Start adding instant rice (urgh), a handful at a time, stirring as needed. Ideally you wind up with a surprisingly large, sticky mass of tomato-flavored rice. It was like they’d independently invented a midwestern America version of Omurice, or something.)

Published in: Geekiness, General | on February 26th, 2012| 2 Comments »

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  1. On 7/28/2014 at 7:55 pm SaapLai Said:

    “Sticky rice” is most definitely not unique to Hmong cuisine. Glutinous rice can be found in traditional recipes of most Asian countries and ethnic groups. It’s often used in dessert recipes, not as a staple rice. The ethnic Lao people of Thailand and Laos are arguably the biggest consumers and cultivators of glutinous rice. It is truly a staple food for ethnic Lao people and consumed with nearly every traditional Lao meal. How does this relate to Hmong people and cuisine, you may wonder? The majority of Hmong in the U.S. emigrated from Laos where they adopted most of their “traditional Hmong” recipes and cuisine from their SE Asian neighbors: the Lao, Thai, and Vietnamese. If you research the history of Hmong “traditional” dishes, you will discover they are not actually Hmong in origin or even name! Of course the Hmong are happy to let you believe these tasty dishes were originally created by them. However, when Hmong share their traditional foods, they are actually promoting the food of other ethnic groups. So if a dish is meant to be accompanied by sticky rice, it’s most likely an ethnic Lao dish.

    The black or purple rice thing with savory foods, however, seems to be a Hmong phenomena.

  2. On 7/28/2014 at 8:05 pm SaapLai Said:

    Please read “Culture and Customs of the Hmong” by Gary Y. Lee and Nicholas Tapp and refer to page 145-148 for more information about Hmong culinary traditions. You can read it for free on Google.