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Sticky Rice: Mortar of Asian Cuisine
Mushy to the touch, sticky rice was borne of a genetic mutation centuries ago. Check out Groupon’s guide to the subject to find how these grains get their curious consistency.
The city of Nanjing is protected partly by sticky rice. Chinese texts dating back 1,500 years have hinted that the grain was a common ingredient in ancient mortar, and, in 2010, chemical testing confirmed it has indeed contributed to the incredible durability of Nanjing’s six-centuries-old city wall. What makes it so sticky? Although the rice is also known as glutinous rice, gluten’s not the answer and isn’t present in the grain. Instead, the species—Oryza glutinosa, to be botanically correct—owes its gluey texture to a starch mutation contained within its short, opaque grains. Plant starch contains two kinds of molecules, amylose and amylopectin, and regular long-grained rice has enough amylose to help it retain its shape when cooking. Sticky rice, on the other hand, contains far more amylopectin, which breaks down when submerged in hot water and yields a mass that clings as tightly together as a group of magnetized lemmings, rather than scattering across the plate.
Across Asia, farmers have purposely cultivated this mutation for centuries, especially in Thailand, Laos, Burma, Cambodia, Vietnam, and southeast China. Sticky rice’s malleability makes it an especially portable snack, and farmers have traditionally wrapped a midday meal of sticky rice inside banana leaves to carry into the fields. Diners can find a similar treat in many Thai restaurants, which add fruit and coconut milk to the aromatic package. In other countries, it can be used like bread to scoop up morsels of savory stews, pressed into cakes and fried, or even steamed inside tubes of bamboo.