The Origins of Xôi
Xôi (sticky rice) is an umbrella term that encompasses all Vietnamese dishes with glutinous rice (or sticky rice) as the base. According to Professor Nguyễn Hùng Vỹ, who specializes in folklore culture, it dated back thousands of years ago, when the grain was first cultivated by the ancient Tày Thái and Mon Khmer – ancestors of the present Kinh race. Originally, glutinous rice was steamed in a big batch and let cool on a large tray. People used their hands to break the rice up into smaller chunks. This practice was then seen in the 1960s when the Vietnamese fluffed rice up and waited for it to cool before eating.
From festive plates of xôi in ceremonies and special occasions to humble ones quickly consumed for breakfast before work, xôi has become a big part of Vietnamese culture. Novelist Thạch Lam even waxed poetic about xôi in his essay: “Beans, peanuts, sesame with coconut. Oh tiny bits of sesame sticky rice, you’re rich, mellow and kind to my wallet!” (Xôi đậu, xôi lạc, xôi vừng mỡ và dừa. Ồ, cái xôi vừng mỡ, nắm từng nắm con, ăn vừa ngậy vừa bùi. Mà có đắt gì đâu!)
In the old days, xôi was often wrapped in a banana or lotus leaf. These organic containers have gradually been replaced by Styrofoam boxes or plastic bags for ease of storage and convenience, but there are still a number of vendors who prefer to use the traditional wrappers.
Nobody keeps track of how many types of xôi Vietnam offers. Each region, with its distinct weather and agriculture, comes up with its own variations of xôi, which can be eaten not only for breakfast but at any time of the day. Meanwhile, influence from Thailand gives rise to the popularity of xôi mít (jackfruit sticky rice) or xôi xoài (mango sticky rice).
Here’s a quick roundup of Vietnamese sticky rice you must try. Let us know which one is your favourite!
Xôi Xéo (Mung Bean Sticky Rice with Crispy Fried Shallots)
Xôi xéo is Hanoi’s iconic breakfast, which consists of turmeric-dyed glutinous rice, topped with mung bean and crispy shallots and a drizzle of melted chicken fat. After steaming the mung beans, vendors roll the thick tacky paste into a big ball, which is then sliced diagonally and served on the sticky rice. This is how the dish got its name, as “xéo” means “diagonal” or “bias” in Vietnamese.
Imagine sitting on a pavement under Hanoi’s chilly weather, basking in the warmth of the golden rice grain. This has become a fond memory that many Hanoians hold dear to their heart.
Xôi Mặn (Savory Sticky Rice with Assorted Meat)
In Saigon’s version of xôi mặn, the glutinous rice is spread thinly on a banana leaf, covered by a layer of pâté and scallion oil, followed by an assortment of meat and cold cuts, including lạp xưởng (Chinese sausage), chả lụa (Vietnamese ham) and chà bông (pork floss). To round everything off, expect a quail egg and a generous amount of crushed peanut.
As time progresses, vendors start adding their own spin to the regular savoury route. Instead of a mix of meat, they focus on a particular ingredient and build it up with toppings and pickles on the side. Other variations in this category include xôi gà (chicken sticky rice) and xôi xá xíu (char siu or BBQ pork sticky rice), which, as the names suggest, hero chicken and char siu.
In Hanoi, savoury sticky rice is an even more elaborate affair, blurring the line between breakfast, lunch and dinner. Expect hearty tender pork simmering for hours in bold broth or homemade ham with an extra egg on top of your sticky rice. That’ll give you the energy you need until lunchtime!
Xôi Gà Đà Nẵng (Đà Nẵng Chicken Sticky Rice)
What sets this apart from other types of chicken sticky rice is the use of the chicken poaching liquid to steam the rice and the addition of rau răm (Vietnamese mint) for some extra freshness.
Xôi Gấc (Gac Sticky Rice)
This distinct sticky rice gets its orange-reddish colour from the fruit gac, a type of melon first discovered in Vietnam and grown across Southeast Asia. People pair gac sticky rice with shredded coconut and sesame salt for a sweet treat or Vietnamese ham to make it savoury. Because of its bright colour, it is often used for special occasions, like birthdays or weddings.
Xôi Bắp/Ngô (Corn Sticky Rice)
Sweet and savoury, soft and crunchy – a combination of contrasting flavours and textures best describes corn sticky rice. This starts with the base, followed by a handful of chewy steamed corn, crushed mung beans, shredded coconut and a generous amount of roasted peanut. Wait for the surprising topping: fried shallots!
Various Types of Xôi Ngọt (Sweet Sticky Rice)
The base for these is glutinous rice cooked in coconut milk or infused with different leaves or herbs for natural colouring and flavour, such as pandan (for green) or magenta (for purple).
Xôi ngũ sắc (Five-color sticky rice) is a delicacy of various mountainous peoples in Sapa, Northern Vietnam. The dish gets its yellow, red, purple and green (not shown) from turmeric, gac fruit, magenta and pandan respectively. Photo via Wikipedia
Vendors also steam peanuts, red or white beans together with the glutinous rice. Regular toppings include mung bean paste, shredded coconut, roasted peanuts, sesame salt and coconut milk.
Xôi lá cẩm (Magenta sticky rice) gets its purple colour from magenta leaves. The toppings are mung bean paste, shredded coconut and roasted peanuts. Some enjoy it with scallion oil for a savoury touch. Photo via Wikipedia
This post is also available in: Tiếng Việt