Friday, February 8, 2019

Ah-Ma's Taiwanese Sticky Rice ( 油飯 )

My Ah-Ma just turned 87 years old.  She lives independently and is a very determined woman.  She just got her knee replaced and she has dutifully done her therapy on her own and is back to chopping coconuts with her hammer and screwdriver.  In the summer of 2017, I made it a point to go and see her on my Fridays off, since those were the painful and lonely months leading up to her knee replacement.  On one of those visits, I asked her if she could teach me to make her delicious Taiwanese sticky rice (which we have always grown up calling 油飯 but may be more formally known as 糯米饭).  She was very happy that I asked, and she even walked a few blocks to Food 4 Less to get some ground meat, even though her knee was killing her.  I felt really badly because of that, but I knew that she was excited to do this because when I arrived, she already made a pot of piping hot plain sticky rice in her traditional rice steamer and she had pre-cut all of the ingredients and placed them in little bowls.  The dried shrimp was soaking and the ground meat was marinating.  It touched me to see this.  I always used to look forward to eating her sticky rice at family holiday gatherings, but it had been a while since she's made it because of her declining health.  Finally, I was going to learn the secret and revive this recipe!

It was really fun and she knew that I genuinely was there to learn.  She pointed out the bottles of spices and flavorings that she used and explained each one.  She didn't try to gloss over the information.  I asked lots of questions since I hadn't seen all of the prep work.  Also, I spotted a kabocha squash on her kitchen floor and asked if we could put some of that in, and she gladly allowed me to cut it up, laughing because she was surprised that I would remember that that was an option since she had only put kabocha in one time.

Overall, the recipe is straightforward, but as with making paella or risotto, getting the texture of the rice correct is the trickiest part.  The first time Ah-Ma showed me how to do it, she had pre-cooked a pot of glutinous rice in the rice cooker and separately stir-fried all of the other ingredients, then mixed it all together.  She says that this is sort of the lazy, foolproof way.  I used that method again three times for various potlucks and parties, and I still felt like I hadn't ever mastered it... something was always a little bit off.  A few days ago for Chinese New Year, I had the opportunity to make sticky rice again with Ah-Ma.  It is now a year and a half after she walked me through the process for the first time at her place.  She's standing up without a walker and still a pro in the kitchen, but her knee is still bothering her even though the scars from her surgery have lightened.  She also honestly seems less able to walk on stairs and more forgetful, but she still has that fiery spirit and can feel her way to making perfect sticky rice without any written recipe.  This time, she saw that we had a steamer and suggested that we try the other method...the less fool-proof method.

Also, Wes was able to be with us this time, and he took some wonderful photos of not only the finished product, but the process and the event.  He even stuck our Go Pro on the stove so that he could get photos of Ah-Ma schooling me (and us bickering, ha!).  Ah-Ma thought that it was so funny and weird that we kept taking pictures, but she played along.

So, I'm going to share this treasured recipe, including the two methods that it can be made!  I've been successful with both, but I think that I am still figuring out which one I like better, as they have their pros and cons.  I think there is also a third way: to cook the sticky rice directly in a heavy-bottomed pot.  So I'd have to try that in the future, too.  I might also try different kinds of glutinous rice to see if a shorter grain is preferable, since I have been using long grain glutinous rice... maybe I could soak it for less time...maybe try adding some garlic...anyway, it's something that one could easily obsess over!  As for Ah-Ma, she doesn't seem to prefer one method over the other, but she says that Method 2 is the "ancient" way.  I thought that that was a good thing, but that's open to interpretation.  You just have to try both and see for yourself.