Nature’s Perfect Food Steamer-Sticky Rice in Lotus leaves
One of nature’s most water-repellent surfaces, lotus leaves are a remarkable wonder of nature. The wonder of the lotus leaf is that it is as porous as a sponge but rain drops literally bounce off due to waxy surface projections and microscopic air pockets that form an outer layer that doesn’t allow much surface contact for the water droplets. I am sure physicist, Brian Cox, would explain contact angles of water droplets more eloquently but my simplified take on it is this; the greater the contact a water droplet has with a surface the more it is absorbed and the less contact (greater contact angle for boffins) the more it is repelled. The lotus leaf’s ultrahydrophobic character is known as the lotus effect and has been studied and applied to waterproofing fabrics (e.g., Gortex breathable water-proof jackets) and a myriad of other coating technologies. So what has it got to do with cooking? Well, it turns out lotus leaves are nature’s perfect food steamer; maintaining just the right moisture content of the food while letting in the cooking steam and also imparting a subtle, fragrant, tea-like flavour.
Sticky rice cooked in lotus leaves (Lo mai gai ) is a Cantonese yum cha classic and has always been a favourite of mine. I am fortunate to have a Chinese friend who not only is a wonderful cook but who generously used to bring these delightful food parcels into work occasionally for lunch. We recently got together and she taught me how to make this wonderful dish. The sticky rice generally encases chicken, Chinese pork sausage, quail eggs and shiitaki mushrooms but feel free to add to or adapt this combination, bearing in mind that the parcels will be steamed for 1 hour.
First you need to get to a local Asian grocer (easy to do in Melbourne) and buy a few of the more unusual pantry items, including those exotic dried lotus leaves. Fresh quail eggs are obtainable from some grocers and Queen Victoria market’s egg section. You need to hard boil and peel them. While fresh eggs will have a better taste you can go the easy route and use canned quail eggs. Dried shiitaki mushrooms and glutinous rice are common now and can be found at supermarkets but an Asian grocer will have everything you need for one stop shopping. There is a fair bit of soaking (rice, lotus leaves and mushrooms) and marinating (chicken, mushrooms and eggs) to do, so plan ahead by doing some steps the night before or well ahead of cooking.
Sticky rice makes a wonderful meal paired with steamed greens and is also an eminently transportable meal package that is easy to reheat in a steamer or a microwave at medium power.
Makes 12 parcels
- 1 cup long grain rice
- 5 cups glutinous rice
- 6 lotus leaves, soaked overnight in a tub of water
- 1 can quail eggs
- 3-4 Chinese preserved sausages, cut into 3 cm pieces
- 300 g chicken thighs fillets, cut into 3 cm cubes
- 6 large dried shiitaki mushrooms, soaked in water for 2 hours, cut in quarters
- 4 tbs light soy sauce
- 1 tbs dark soy sauce
- 3 tbs dry white wine or shaoxing wine
- olive oil
Cook the rice in a rice cooker according to instructions or soak the rice for several hours, drain and steam it for 15 minutes. If using fresh eggs, boil them for 4 minutes, rinse in cold water and peel. Make a small cut in each cooked quail egg. This is useful if you intend to reheat the parcels in a microwave as it will stop the egg from disintegrating. Place the chicken, shiitaki and eggs in a bowl and mix through 3 tablespoons of the light soy sauce, the dark soy sauce, white wine and a couple pinches of salt. Leave to marinate for as long as you can. Put the cooked rice in a bowl and sprinkle with a little salt, the remaining tablespoon of soy sauce and 2 tablespoons of olive oil and gently mix it all through.
Assembly: Cut each lotus leaf in half with scissors and brush the inner surface that will be in contact with the rice with olive oil. Spoon some rice into the palm of your hand and press down to form a palm sized patty. Place this on the leaf and then add a layer of your marinated filling (3-4 pieces of chicken, 1-2 eggs, 2 pieces shiitaki and 2 pieces of sausage). Overlay the filling with another layer of rice and shape into a square bundle with your hands and brush the top with olive oil. Wrap up in the lotus leaf, folding over the sides to make a neat parcel. Steam the sticky rice parcels for 1 hour. You will have to do this in batches depending on the size and number of layers of your steamer.
Variations: add 1-2 teaspoons soaked dried split mung beans for a creamy textured filling; add peanuts or cooked chestnuts for some crunchy texture; substitute chicken with pieces of pork belly; add sliced spring onions; add 1/2 teaspoon five spice powder to the marinade.