What exactly is xôi? In Vietnam, rice comes in two forms: regular "hard" rice, called gạo tẻ (Oryza Sativa Dura), and the sticky, or glutinous rice, called gạo nếp (Oryza Sativa Glutinosa). The hard variety is the medium-to-long-grain staple you eat every day: loose-grained, hard to eat with chopsticks, mixes well with other foods. Sticky rice, as the name implies, holds together firmly; in Laos they actually press it into a ball and use it to pick up other foods. It's unsuitable for soups because it doesn't swirl around in the liquid, but works great as a base for sweet or savory toppings – and the Vietnamese give you plenty to choose from.
The difference between the two rice strains comes down to a single genetic mutation. Let me explain: normal, hard rice contains two starches, amylopectin and amylose. Amylopectin is the starch that makes rice sticky. Normal rice contains around 30% amylose, however, and this ensures that the grains separate after cooking. As you can guess, glutinous rice has no amylose. As a result, the amylopectin is free to loose its stickiness upon the grain unhindered. Bless its starchy little head.
As a cultivar, sticky rice is of fairly recent origin. While evidence exists that hard rice was cultivated in China as early as 3,000 B.C., genetic researchers have traced the origins of sticky rice to a single genetic mutation that probably occured a couple of thousand years later. Where did this mutation occur? Most likely right here, in Southeast Asia. People obviously took to it, because farmers went on cultivating it. Even today, sticky rice remains the staple grain in many parts of Southeast Asia, notably northeastern Thailand and Laos.
What does all this have to do with dinner? Nothing, except that I like to know where my food comes from! And the fact that sticky rice has such deep roots in the Southeast Asian soil makes me feel that, in a macrobiotic sense, I'm eating exactly what I'm supposed to be eating while I live here.
So let's get to the yummy stuff: in Vietnam, xôi can be made into sweet or savory concoctions. Sweet xôi is called xôi ngọt, and salty, or savory xôi is xôi mặn. When it comes to toppings, the sky is the limit. Sweet xôi can be cooked with coconut milk, mixed with fruits, nuts, sugar, and even used as a base for ice cream! My taste, however, runs toward the savory varieties. Most especially, I love xôi xéo, in which the xôi is cooked together with green beans (giving the rice a yellowish color) and served with mung bean paste, fried shallots and choice of meat.
Hanoi boasts many locales in which to sample a good xôi, but Xôi Yến, on Nguyễn Hữu Huân Street, at the edge of the Old Quarter, could make a credible case as the best in town. Xôi Yến is easy to spot amid several xôi eateries on the same street because it's the one with all the people. The place serves a steady stream of customers, sitting at tables inside or upstairs, on low plastic stools outside, or getting their fare to go.
Xôi Yến offers three basic xôi varieties – xôi trắng (regular, white xôi), xôi ngô (xôi with bits of corn mixed in), and the aforementioned xôi xéo – with about twenty different possible toppings. These include various patés, boiled meats, chicken dishes, eggs, and vegetables. My favorites include gà nấm (chicken and black forest mushrooms, topped with kaffir lime leaves), thịt kho tầu (caramelized pork), and chả cốm (a kind of processed meat with green rice flakes inside) – all served with xôi xéo, of course.
A bowl of xôi with topping of choice generally runs anywhere from 8,000-15,000 VND (about 50 to 90 cents US). A light vinegary cucumber salad served alongside provides a nice complement to all these dishes. Throw in another 1,000 đồng for an iced tea, and you have one of the cheapest, and most delicious, meals in town.