The Quiet Joy of Xôi Gấc (Red Sticky Rice)

published Jan 26, 2022
Xôi Gấc (Red Sticky Rice) Recipe

This red sticky rice can be eaten on its own with toppings, or paired with savory dishes.

Serves8 to 10

Prep30 minutes

Cook45 minutes to 50 minutes

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Red sticky rice on a banana-leaf-lined platter
Credit: Photo: Jenny Huang; Food Styling: Thu Pham Buser; Prop Styling: JoJo Li

My earliest memories of Tết are this: My grandparents seated before us, the rest of us lined up to pay our respects. Brittle New England weather loomed outside, but inside we were warm with bodies and food and drink. The girls dressed in traditional áo dài, the boys in respectable button-downs. There was a sense of quiet awe, even as we crowded together, us kids elbowing and pinching and holding back laughter. We waited our turn to wish our grandparents well and to receive their wisdom. If there were relatives who had passed, we would light incense, pray for them, and ask for their blessing, too. Celebration, I gathered, was not separate from those moments of deliberate quiet, of reverence. 

But of course, on Lunar New Year, we celebrate. We celebrate family and fresh starts, look forward to a year of joy and plenty. I recently surveyed my cousins for their favorite Tết dishes, and bánh chưng (sticky rice cake) and thịt kho (braised pork belly) were top hits. It’s not hard to see why. One bite of fried bánh chưng and your teeth sink past a crispy exterior, past soft sticky rice, into savory meat. Made well, eating thịt kho feels like biting into a cloud, the way the fat melts in your mouth, releasing all its hearty flavors onto your tongue. The richness of these foods add to the holiday’s high sensory experience: the clamor of drums and dragon dances, the almost sandy feel of fresh bills inside red envelopes. Still, a Tết spread would be incomplete, in my opinion, without the inclusion of xôi — sticky rice — to round everything out. 

There are many variations of xôi, but the version commonly seen during Lunar New Year is xôi gấc — simply, red sticky rice. Despite its bold color (which comes from the gấc fruit), I think xôi gấc’s main appeal is its humbleness. It promises ease and flexibility in its preparation. There are regional and familial and personal preferences, but essentially, all you have to do is mix together gấc, rice wine, a little bit of oil, salt, and rice, then let it steam. Even the labor behind it feels meditative. This version is mildly sweet with hints of coconut. There are no explosions of spices that stun the tastebuds, no complex flavors to sort through. What it offers is a pillowy-but-chewy texture that is so captivating, you don’t realize how much you’ve eaten until it’s clean off your plate. 

Credit: Photo: Jenny Huang; Food Styling: Thu Pham Buser; Prop Styling: JoJo Li

In preparation for Tết, I’ve been reflecting on the reason for those quiet moments during celebration, why we insist on them year after year despite Tết being a holiday in which loudness is often shorthand for prosperity. As it happens, it was during the making of xôi gấc that I stumbled upon my realization. At my family Tết celebrations, food is typically served buffet-style, which means that everyone is plating to their own taste. Xôi, when made with mild, balanced flavors, can cut through other savory dishes in a way that draws out the most inviting aspects of those dishes. It’s also delightful when topped with shredded coconut, and just as mouthwatering when dipped and rolled in a ground mixture of peanuts, sesame, and sugar.

The dish’s inherent lack of complicatedness — its quietness — allows us to enjoy the vibrance of the other holiday flavors more acutely. The idea seems almost too neat, the way banal insight can be until we are ready to receive it — but as I picked up the lid and gave the steaming rice one last stir, I considered this: In the quiet we can name our longings. In the quiet we can finally hear the wisdom we need for the year ahead.

Xôi Gấc (Red Sticky Rice) Recipe

This red sticky rice can be eaten on its own with toppings, or paired with savory dishes.

Prep time 30 minutes

Cook time 45 minutes to 50 minutes

Serves 8 to 10

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

  • 3 cups

    raw glutinous or sweet rice (about 1 pound, 5 ounces)

  • 10 to 12 ounces

    frozen gac gourd or baby jackfruit paste (1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cups), preferably with seeds

  • 3 tablespoons

    rice wine or dry white wine

  • 2 tablespoons

    canola, vegetable, or avocado oil

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons

    kosher salt

  • 1/4 cup

    full fat unsweetened canned coconut milk

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons

    granulated sugar, plus more as needed

Instructions

  1. Place 3 cups glutinous rice in a fine-mesh strainer and rinse briefly under cold water. Transfer to a large bowl and add enough cold water to cover by a few inches. Let the rice soak at cool room temperature for at least 4 hours and up to overnight. Meanwhile, thaw 10 to 12 ounces frozen gac fruit paste.

  2. Drain the rice through a fine-mesh strainer, then return the rice to the bowl.

  3. Place the gac paste (including any seeds), 3 tablespoons rice wine or dry white wine, 2 tablespoons canola oil, and 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt in a medium bowl and stir with chopsticks until a paste forms.

  4. Transfer to the bowl of rice and stir with chopsticks until the grains are evenly coated. Let the mixture sit for 5 to 10 minutes so that the rice absorbs the coloring. Meanwhile, fill a steamer with water and set up for steaming (or steam in a wok with a wide bamboo steamer). Bring the water to a boil over medium-high heat. Place 1/4 cup coconut milk and 1 1/2 teaspoons granulated sugar in a small bowl and stir until the sugar is dissolved.

  5. Transfer the rice into a steaming tray or bamboo steamer if using a wok and spread into an even layer (the paste will hold the rice together). Cover and steam for 21 minutes. Every 7 to 10 minutes, gently stir the rice with chopsticks, dragging the rice on the edges that cooks faster toward the center; arrange back into an even layer. Shake off any water condensation on the lid to minimize the amount of water that drips back down onto the sticky rice. Check the water level and add more water as needed.

  6. Slowly drizzle half of the sweetened coconut milk onto the rice and gently stir with chopsticks until evenly combined. Cover and steam for 10 minutes. Check the water level and add more water as needed.

  7. Drizzle the remaining sweetened coconut milk onto the rice and gently stir to combine. Cover and steam until the rice is cooked through and has a soft, mildly sticky texture, about 5 minutes. If desired, sprinkle with more granulated sugar to taste, cover, and steam for 2 to 3 minutes more. Serve warm (note that the gac seeds are not edible).

Recipe Notes

Storage: Leftovers can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 7 days. Reheat individual servings in the microwave for about 30 seconds.