Glutinous Rice: Beyond Delicious


Culinary Delights From Across the Archipelago

Black or white, sticky rice is not only perfect for a variety of dishes, but also represents philosophical values.

Words by Vikaria Lestari, Photography by Helen Yuanita

Dining in a Thai restaurant, I am served khao niao mamuang (mango sticky rice). It is a Thai dessert of glutinous rice drizzled in coconut milk, served with slices of fresh mango. This popular dessert reminds me of a similar Indonesian delicacy, known as ketan durian. Ketan is the Indonesian word for glutinous rice. Instead of coconut milk and mango, the Indonesian version of khao niao mamuang uses durian for the dressing, creating a sweet and deliciously melt-on-your-tongue sensation.

Indonesia offers many dishes made with glutinous or sticky rice. The rice can be wrapped in leaves and steamed, fermented, made into dodol (a toffeelike confection) or into rice crackers.

Originating in Southeast Asia, glutinous rice comes in two varieties, white and black – the black version is rich in anthocyanins, a natural chemical that can slow down the growth of colon cancer cells.

Leaf Wrapping

When you go to Java Island, you will easily find delicious lemper, sticky rice rolls filled with spiced shredded chicken. Lemper are a ubiquitous traditional Indonesian snack; you are likely to find them at almost every gathering. The rolls are typically wrapped in banana leaves before being steamed, as banana leaves are believed to enhance the flavours by imparting a subtle, sweet taste and aroma. In Bukittinggi, WestSumatra, young banana leaves are inserted into bamboo and filled with glutinous rice, before being grilled over heated coconut husk. The popular savoury dish is called lemang. In Jakarta, lemang is sold along Kramat Raya Street, an area well known for its lines of street vendors selling the Bukittinggi delicacy.

Another traditional dish from West Sumatra is called ketupat ketan. Here, the glutinous rice is packed in diamond-shaped, woven palm leaves and steamed. The packed rice is normally enjoyed with rendang (Indonesian beef stew) or a duck curry side dish.

Fermented Glutinous Rice

Sticky rice is also good when fermented. Kuningan, West Java, is renowned for its fermented dish called tape ketan. Tape is the Indonesian term referring to fermented glutinous rice or cassava. Also known as peuyum ketan, the delicacy is wrapped in apple rose leaves and commonly sold in black buckets. The fragrance from the combination of fermented glutinous rice and the apple rose leaves is so tempting. This dish is best served cold.

The green hue of juicy tape ketan comes from the katuk leaves (Sauropus androgynus) juice, used to dye the sticky rice before it is combined with a yeast ball. In Banjarmasin, South Kalimantan, another tape variant, locally known as tapai gambut, is served without any wrapping. Instead, the green-hued,fermented glutinous rice is shaped into small balls and presented ready to eat.

In Madiun, East Java, a white-yellowish bar called brem is a traditional snack, made with the juice that comes from fermented glutinous rice. With a sweetand- sour flavour, brem easily melts in the mouth, leaving a fresh aftertaste and a cool, mint-like sensation with every bite. Despite having the same name, if you ask for brem in Bali, you will be presented with a drink. Originally served as part of religious ceremonies, Bali’s brem is nowadays commonly given as a welcome drink for tourists. It’s sweet yet acidic and contains 5–14 per cent alcohol.

Philosophies and Local Wisdom

Glutinous rice is not merely an ingredient for snacks, cakes, or dishes. It is also embedded in Indonesian culture as it is typically served at traditional Javanese wedding ceremonies, the characteristic sticky texture a perfect reminder as well as a wish for the newlyweds to not be easily parted. Many other regions across the archipelago also treat sticky rice as a central dish during traditional celebrations or community gatherings.

The ritual of making fermented glutinous rice or tape is also influenced by local wisdom. In order to get sweet, delicious tape, the cook should not carry a grudge, anger, or any other negative feelings during preparation. Before starting work, they should wash from head to toe, purifying not only the heart and mind, but also the body. Known for centuries in Southeast and East Asia, as well as eastern parts of South Asia, the short grain is an integral part of local culture, not only for its diversity and health benefits, but also as part of longheld traditions and wisdom



Vikaria Lestari

Javanese by birth, is a writer and translator whose passions are travelling, food and reading. Her hobby, amongst others, is observing the unique characteristics of different cuisines and places, which she shares later in her writing. Her published works include translated novels written by bestselling American authors, as well as travel and lifestyle articles.