If you walk on the streets of Thailand and see these banana leaf packets on the grill with their contents inconspicuously concealed and their exteriors burned, charred, and sooty in random spots, I recommend that you overlook the questionable attractiveness of these little things and do what I do: lunge for them with all your might, squeeing while in mid-air.
Those who prefer a less dramatic, more dignified way of obtaining snacks on the streets — not that I understand any of you in the least — can just approach the vendor and politely ask her for a few of these grilled sweet sticky rice packets.
Either way, you end up with warm, delicious sticky rice scented with charred banana leaves, its aromatic and biodegradable wrappers. Khao niao ping comes both plain and with different fillings most common of which include ripe Thai burro bananas (the type commonly batter-fried or ordained) and sweet taro paste.
Then you consume them while they’re still fresh — cooled down enough to handle yet not steaming hot off the grill. You bite through the slightly crusty exterior, thanking your favorite deity for the parts where the sticky rice peeked through tiny openings in the banana leaf packets, got in direct contact with the heat, and formed delicious, crispy, charred bits. You savor the sweet, warm, and gooey filling. Little pieces of brittle burned banana leaves are sticking to your hands and both sides of your mouth. But how you appear to passers-by at this point doesn’t matter much. Questions run through your mind. First of all, why is this so good? Secondly, hey, where have I had this sticky rice before?
You have indeed seen, or consumed, this sweet sticky rice in a different form. Remember the sweet coconut sticky rice that you eat with ripe mangoes? Both are essentially the same. If you’re familiar with Thai sticky rice and how to cook it, you have already mastered the most difficult part of this recipe.
Before you proceed, here are some remarks.
1. You need the right type of sticky rice, i.e. the medium grain glutinous rice that is heavily used in Thai and Lao cuisines. It is different from Japanese short grain rice that you use to make sushi rice or any type of short grain Italian rice that you use to make risotto. Brands vary from area to area, so your best strategy is not to hunt for a particular brand but to pay attention to the package. Whenever the word “Thai” or “Thailand” appears along with “sweet rice” or “glutinous rice,” you’re in a safe zone. (But if you really want to be extra sure, here’s what a package of Thai sticky rice usually looks like.)
2. You need the right bananas. I recommend ripe Thai burro bananas (kluai nam wa) for this recipe. They’re usually sold green, and you need to let them ripen on the counter for 3-4 days until the skins turn thoroughly yellow. Burro bananas are hard to find in most areas of the US, unfortunately. So if you can’t find them, use 12 whole baby or niño bananas or 3 large regular (cavendish) bananas halved crosswise and halved again lengthwise (to get a total of 12 pieces).
3. You need banana leaves. In the US, they usually come frozen (in 16-oz packages). Look in the freezer of your Hispanic or Asian grocery store. You need to thaw the banana leaves as they become pliable and less prone to breakage — not to mention easier to handle — once completely thawed. If you absolutely can’t find banana leaves, use fresh corn husks or dried corn husks (for tamales), reconstituted. You want something that gets charred over the hot coals and gives off a smoky aroma.
4. You need thin wooden toothpicks to secure the banana leaf packets.
5. For best results, you need to make the sweet coconut sticky rice at least 3-4 hours in advance, allowing it time to cool down and firm up. This is akin to how you want to make fried rice with cold, leftover rice instead of freshly-cooked rice which is soft and steaming hot. The sweet sticky rice can even be made 1-2 days before, kept covered and refrigerated, then heated gently just long enough to make it malleable again.
Now, the following part is important.
5.1 Commercially, the sweet sticky rice for grilling is prepared slightly differently from the way it is when served with mango. That is to say, instead of being steamed then steeped in hot coconut milk syrup, raw glutinous rice is cooked risotto-style on the stove top, using a mixture of coconut milk-sugar as the cooking liquid, just until it’s partially cooked. The grilling helps cook the rice further, resulting in a sweet sticky rice dumpling that is drier, firmer, stickier, and more substantial which you can consume while holding it in your hand.
5.2 However, I recommend that you prepare the rice the way you already know how, i.e. the sticky rice & mango way (steeping). It’s less complicated and quicker. Also, if you’re new at this, by starting out with completely-cooked rice, you won’t feel so anxious about whether or not you’ve grilled the dumplings long enough for each and every kernel of rice to cook all the way through. The downside is that the end result is noticeably softer and more gooey, and requires that you eat it with a fork or spoon. This is not at all a bad thing. Having said that, grilled sticky rice dumplings which you find on the streets aren’t usually anywhere that soft and gooey.
If you’re okay with the softer texture, prepare 4 times the amount of this sweet coconut sticky rice recipe exactly as instructed.
If you know that you much prefer the firmer texture, follow the same recipe quadrupling the amount of raw rice, sugar, and salt but tripling the amount of coconut milk. You can even intentionally under-steam the rice so that the kernels are barely translucent and sticky but still hard inside. I don’t recommend this method to beginners, but I wanted to make it an option for those who prefer firmer dumplings.
6. If you don’t want to deal with the grilling, broiling is an option*. This is how to cook these things in the winter. Of course, you don’t get the extra aroma from the charcoal, but you still get something out of the smoky scent of charred banana leaves. To do so, position a rack at the very bottom of the oven and set your broiler on high. Arrange the banana packets on a large cookie sheet and place it on the rack. In order to make sure the inside is heated through before the banana leaves are burnt and fall apart, you need to monitor the progress quite closely. Flip the packets around frequently, about every 2-3 minutes or so, until the outsides are completely charred. The whole process should take about 20-30 minutes.
*Pan-grilling doesn’t get the banana leaves charred enough to my liking and grilling over direct flame gets the banana leaves burned before the insides are heated through and have absorbed the aroma.
Other than these, the rest is pretty straightforward.
- Prepared sweet coconut sticky rice (see post for recipe and amount)
- One 16-ounce package of frozen banana leaves, thawed and wiped clean with a damp towel, cut into 12 pieces about 16″ wide (you may not need the entire package)
- 24 wooden toothpicks
- 6 ripe burro bananas, peeled and halved lengthwise (see post for substitutes)
- Put the prepared sweet coconut sticky rice in a large bowl. With a spatula, create demarcation lines to divide the entire mass into quarters. Using the same technique, divide each quarter into thirds. You now have 12 equal portions of sticky rice.
- To assemble one packet, lay one piece of banana leaf, dull side up, on the counter. Take one portion of the sticky rice and split it in half. Spread one half onto the banana leaf, position it to one side of the leaf. Make sure that 1.) the width and length of the sticky rice mound are slightly more than those of the banana and 2.) the length of the sticky rice mound runs parallel with the length of the banana leaf fiber (see photo).
- Put one piece of banana on top of the sticky rice; it doesn’t matter which side goes up.
- Cover the banana with the other half of the sticky rice portion.
- Roll the banana leaf from one end to the other, tightening it as you go. You don’t want the packet to be loosey-goosey; you don’t want it to be so tight that the filling oozes out the top and bottom ends as you roll either. I’ll let you figure out where the sweet spot is in terms of how much pressure to apply.
- Trim off the ends of the roll so that there’s only one inch overhang on each end. Fold and taper each end slightly, getting rid of all air pockets. Secure both ends with the toothpicks positioned as close to the rice as possible.
- Repeat until you run out of all ingredients.
- Grill the banana packets over medium heat, flipping them every 5 minutes or so, until the banana leaves are thoroughly charred and the filling is heated through, about 45 minutes. (See instructions for broiling in the post.)
- Let the packets cool about 10-15 minutes before serving.