Sometimes I dream about sitting in a big tub of rice pudding. It just seems like a nice thing to do. I imagine the milk or coconut milk would have a calming, moisturizing effect on the skin, and I like the idea of spa and sustenance all in one place. Whenever I get hungry, I could just lean down and take a little nibble around my elbow.
Everyone has a secret food dream. Mine is born of extreme rice love. From puddings to cakes, I never seem to tire of anything rice-based—particularly anything made with sticky rice, aka glutinous rice, which, despite its gluteney sounding name, is gluten-free. Plasma be damned, sticky rice is really the fourth state of matter; there's something endlessly fascinating about its gummy, sticky texture that comes from the amylopectin starch particles in the rice breaking down. It's just damn fun to eat.
My preference for sticky-rice desserts and snacks might be born of exposure. My mother is Filipino, and sticky-rice cakes—kakanin—have been a staple at every Filipino potluck I've ever attended. Some other people's entrée into sticky-rice sweets is Japanese mochi or Thai sticky rice with mango, but these are all just scratching the surface of the overwhelming array of Asian sticky-rice desserts and snacks out there. From China to Vietnam, there seems to be a million varieties for every country. (Indeed, shortly into doing this piece, I wondered why I had even picked such a stupidly broad topic. Doing a piece on sticky-rice desserts is like doing one called "noodle.")
There's no possible way to eat or describe them all, but there were some I wanted to try or endlessly retry. First stop: Despi Delite Bakery, the longtime Filipino bakery on Beacon Hill, to see if I could find my favorite Filipino sticky-rice cakes, biko and bibingka malagkit. Alas, the person in charge of doing most of their kakanin was on vacation until March. They did have suman malagkit, though. The glutinous rice is simmered with coconut milk, sugar, and salt before being steamed in a banana leaf, and then a long stick of the steamed sticky-rice cake is served still wrapped in the leaf. More snack than dessert, suman malagkit is usually eaten with extra sugar because it actually doesn't include that much. But I like it as it is, lightly sweet with just a tinge of salty savoriness, and I ripped that damp banana leaf open in the front seat of my car, taking it down like candy.
Tony's Bakery in Rainier Valley may be beloved for its bánh mì, but what first strikes you when you visit the Vietnamese bakery and deli is its rainbow-colored assortment of sweet and savory glutinous-rice snacks—xôi—placed front and center on massive tables by the cash register. I passed over the xôi lac (sticky rice with peanut) in favor of xôi boc bánh tráng, two small mounds of Barney-purple and lime-green-colored sticky rice topped with coconut shavings and sitting in their own individual rice crepe wrappers. They looked like sticky-rice tacos. Xôi can be colored naturally with plants or fruits (magenta plant for the purple, for example), but the color can come from food dye, too.
While regular cooked white rice is always a sadder next-day affair, sticky rice cooked in coconut milk has many, many lives to give. I zapped these bad boys in the microwave a couple days later for breakfast, and they were even better heated up—the rice softens and the coconut flavor becomes stronger.
Like suman, xôi boc bánh tráng is more of a lightly sweet snack than dessert, so for something more along the lines of the latter, the woman behind the counter directed me to hot chè—a Vietnamese term for sweet beverages, dessert soups, and puddings—sitting in metal tubs at the steam table. Bambu and Chè Dessert Lounge, just down the street on Martin Luther King Jr. Way South, actually specialize in chè, but Tony's offers a tasty selection of both hot and cold as well for a buck or two less. A gooey rice pudding with black-eyed peas, chè dâu tráng, had me dreaming of my big rice-pudding tub again. The black-eyed peas added an earthy savoriness to the dish, which was finished with a healthy ladle of coconut milk. I was surprised, however, to find that I preferred chè trôi nuoc, glutinous rice balls in a light ginger syrup. Made from glutinous rice flour, the balls are stuffed with a sweet mung-bean paste with the consistency of Play-Doh, and the sugar syrup is not overwhelmingly gingery, especially when topped with coconut milk and roasted sesame seeds.
After chè trôi nuok, I was curious to try more rice balls in liquid, so I headed over to Fruit Bliss Cafe in the International District and then Cafe O' Dessert in the University District, both of which specialize in Hong Kong/Cantonese-style desserts like shaved ice and tong sui, sweet dessert soups and custards.
I'll be honest, I feel like a big disappointment in the dessert soup world, because I tend to just eat the rice balls and not finish off the soup. I see this more like when you eat all the wontons in the soup and leave some of the broth behind—the soup is lovely and all, but I don't always feel a need to broth it up until the end. Is it a crime, I wonder, to admit that while I like a sweet dessert soup, I see it more as a vehicle for the awesomeness of the rice ball?
I didn't know how to explain this my servers, who seemed sad that I had not finished off my soup despite finding and attacking every single rice ball five minutes after they set the dishes down in front of me. The red bean soup at Fruit Bliss Cafe actually tasted a little too watered down, but the rice balls were delicious, made from a thinner dough than the ones in the chè trôi nuoc and filled with warm peanut butter. At Cafe O' Dessert, the green bean soup was made with mung beans—not, as the name suggests, green string beans. The soup, a deep dark green from the mung bean, was richer and tastier than the one at Fruit Bliss Cafe, and its glutinous rice balls were filled with just enough lovely sweet black sesame paste to not overpower the rest of the dish.
There was just too much sticky rice and not enough time—I hadn't even gotten to Chinese sticky rice cakes like nian gao, to say nothing of rice desserts and snacks from countries like Laos or Malaysia. To be honest, after eating this much sweet rice in a week, my rice-pudding tub fantasy began to fade and I started to feel like one big glutinous rice ball myself as I sat on my couch and wondered what kind of paste I should be stuffed with.
The dream will probably return in a week, after a little break. Next time, I'd like to imagine some glutinous rice balls in the tub, too, bobbing happily around my ankles.