Posted by: adventuressetravels | October 12, 2012

Rice Rainbow

Rice is a staple, perhaps the staple in Asian cooking.  It is eaten with everything, from curries and stir fries, to alcohols, but my perhaps my favorite are the desserts made with rice.

Sticky Rice Burrito

For years I have adored rice-based desserts.  Rice puddings, be they British or Indian are mouthwatering, the Japanese rice dessert mochi, whether encasing little scoops of ice cream or just on its own satisfying gummy form are also a favorite.  So when I arrived in Southeast Asia a world of different rice-based desserts opened for me.

Thai food is a worldwide favorite, at least in the United States and Europe.  And as famous as its curries and noodle dishes are, my favorite dish may be the Thai dessert, sticky rice with mango.  The delicious, but subtle, sticky rice cooked in coconut milk, sugar, and a dash of salt is a perfect marriage with the bright, bold taste of ripe mango.   You can’t find them on the street until afternoon, I think that the rice needs some time to set and become the perfect consistency, but this dish is well worth the wait.

The tastiest street food I tried in Cambodia was a sticky rice burrito of sorts.  A street vendor stuffed a concoction of yellow sticky rice mixed with coconut milk, black rice, shredded coconut into a tortilla-style wrapper and then sprinkled a slightly salty powder on top before rolling the entire thing up like a burrito.  Alas, I only saw the sticky rice burrito woman once, but if I ever see someone selling something like that again I will make it a point to buy one.

The award for most stunning rice dessert unquestionably goes to Vietnam and their rainbow sticky rice.  Street carts selling many-hued piles of glutinous rice on the streets of Saigon are some of the most beautiful, and certainly the most impressive food vendors. Like stunning flowers attracting bees, the multi-colored mounds of green, yellow, orange, black, and brown rice draw customers from blocks away.

The rice is colored by leaves and fruits which lends them distinct, but subtle, aromas and flavors in addition to their stunning color.  At least that’s what they tell me.  I might have been able to taste a hint of flavor, but if I hadn’t told I am not sure I would have picked up on it.

Luckily the coloring isn’t where the food’s flavor ends.  After scooping a generous portion of rice into a Styrofoam to-go-box, the vendor drizzles sweetened condensed milk over it, adds a dollop of peanut sauce, and sprinkles the whole concoction with coconut.  I loved the light green rice colored with pandan leaves or xoi la dua.

But this colorful street-food has a deeper significance.  When the colored glutinous rice is blended into one bowl, it becomes of five-colored sticky rice, an important dish for many of Northern Vietnam’s ethnic minorities.

When I visited the Bac Ha Market in Northern Vietnam, I was delighted to see the colored glutinous sticky rice.  But this sticky rice wasn’t merely separate heaps of one color of grains.  No, the steamers  were so filled with a mix of colorful grains they looked like bongo drums filled with confetti.

Apparently this rainbow rice, called Soi Mau, is special food for many of the ethnic minorities in Northern Vietnam like the Hmong and Tay tribes.

When I sampled a taste of this beautiful food however, I was a bit disappointed.  Though beautiful, it tasted like plain rice to me and the cultural significance is lost on my palate.  As much as I like my food photogenic, I think I’ll go with flavor over appearance and stick to sweet sticky rice.


  1. Rice by itself is not much to look at, so it’s no surprise that so much ingenuity and diversity goes into making it a visual delight. Also, so many different condiments suggest its basic taste is recognized as being pretty bland. Enhancing potatoes has a ways to go.

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