What is xoi?
For those countries heavily relying on wet rice cultivation like Vietnam, rice and rice-based products play such a significant role in our culture and tradition. The image of a small pack of xoi grabbed in a banana leaf has been strongly connected with many Vietnamese generations.
Xoi (xôi) – or steamed sticky rice – accompanies our people from day-to-day meals to all the important events of our life. A ceremony would be missing without the presence of xoi on the offering tables and the ancestors’ altars. Across the country, xoi tells different stories and displays a breadth of culinary history and culture of our people. Add xoi to your must-try list and carry on reading to find out why.
The origin of xoi
Rice has been with us since the birth of the nation. Back in the day, wet rice was not the major crop cultivation; instead, glutinous rice was the main staple food brought to Vietnam by the ancient Tay Thai ethnic group and the Mon-Khmer migrants. Over time, with the prevalence of regular rice (or white rice), glutinous rice has transformed from daily staple food to an indispensable offering for important celebratory events. Nowadays, xoi is among the most diverse foods in Vietnam. Thanks to the various local ingredients and cooking methods, almost every city of the 63 cities across Vietnam has its own style of xoi, either plant-based or meat-based. Now, let’s look at the diversity of sticky rice in Vietnamese cuisine.
Types of xoi
A full list of xoi varieties must go on forever; however, they can be generally categorized into sweet and savory sticky rice due to their ingredients. All the sweet sticky rice snacks are vegan, while savory sticky rice is accompanied by different kinds of meat and requires more cooking steps.
1. Sweet sticky rice
The creativity of sweet sticky rice is limitless, but in general, sweet sticky rice is usually made with glutinous rice, beans, and fruits. Here are some common versions of sweet sticky rice.
Sticky rice and beans are definitely the most common combination, creating hundreds of varieties. In Vietnamese, beans are called “dau“, which is a homophone of “pass” when translated back into English. Therefore, this is considered a lucky food and is often eaten by students before their exams, in the hope of passing their exams with flying colors. Sticky rice itself is quite plain, so it is often combined with coconut milk and beans to gain a more nutty and sweet taste. Almost all types of beans can be mixed with sticky rice: black beans, black-eyed beans, mung beans, red beans, peanuts, and so on. Sticky rice and beans are a favorable breakfast as they are filling and portable.
Xoi ngu sac
This type of sticky rice is a specialty of the Northwestern region and is made for special occasions such as New Year celebrations, newborn celebrations, weddings, and death anniversaries. The five colors white, purple, green, yellow, and red are not picked randomly but for their beautiful underlying meanings. Moreover, the colors are extracted from natural ingredients to celebrate the giving of nature. In the tribal belief, the five colors represent five elements of the universe which are wood, fire, earth, water, and metal. These five shades of sticky rice are placed in a circle on a plate, picturing the circle of life.
Red rice (fire element) represents passion and hope for the future. The red coloring is extracted from the sweet gourds, also known as Gac fruit. Although it is categorized as a fruit, this Gac fruit is mostly used for food coloring. Depending on the Gac fruit extract ratio, the color can vary from light orange to orange-reddish.
Purple or black rice (earth element) represents fertile soil. In the Northern tribes’ belief, the soil is their source of life, which they worship and cherish. The black color comes from an indigenous plant called “dam deng“. These leaves are wildly grown, and their extract creates a shiny black color. Meanwhile, due to the unavailability of this kind of leaves, people from other parts of the country create the purple color from their local produce such as purple dragon fruits, butterfly pea flowers, and magenta leaves.
Yellow rice (metal element) represents prosperity and affluence. In Asian culture, the yellow color is generally synonymous with gold, a symbol of wealth. This is also the color of the ripe rice – the living source of people from a wet rice culture. Commonly, turmeric, either fresh roots or powder, is used to create this yellow.
Green rice (wood element) is the color of the vast forest – the iconic scene of the Northern region. It represents development and flourishment, a hope for self-growth. Green sticky rice is the result of mixing sticky rice with pandan extract.
White rice (air element) represents loyalty and innocence. It is also a symbol of love and gratitude towards parents. This is of course the original color of glutinous rice, but it is often added with coconut milk to be more flavorful.
On big holidays, Northwestern people get up before dawn, put on their traditional costumes, and offer sticky rice to the deceased ancestors and the above beings, praying for an advantageous season and good harvest. Then, as a part of the rituals, all family members gather and eat sticky rice before starting a new work day.
Xoi vo is actually similar to xoi xeo without toppings. Xoi vo has its yellow color from mung beans. The rice after cooking is dry and non-sticky outside while remaining moist inside so that it can be formed into sticky rice balls. These sticky rice balls were created for easy carrying and storage so that farmers can eat them in the fields.
Together with the mentioned colored sticky rice, xoi vo is another traditional food offering. The culture of the Kinh people is that we often serve sticky rice with che – a traditional sweet dessert soup. This xoi-che has been a long-standing ritual in the Vietnamese worshiping and offering culture. Culturally, these “xoi che” are a must in a baby’s first month and first-year celebration. It is believed that the types and amounts of sticky.
Xoi sau rieng
If Thailand is famous for mango and jackfruit sticky rice, in Vietnam, we have durian sticky rice. Mung bean sticky rice is spread evenly on a sheet of baked bread which looks like a piece of naan bread. Coconut milk and durian flesh, which is already made into a paste-like mixture, are added to the center, and it is rolled up. Durian is not a to-go fruit for everyone; hence, durian sticky rice may require some courage, curiosity, or personal interest to try. Knowing that this takeaway food profoundly reflects the Southern people’s culinary culture which appreciates fruit-based products, especially coconuts, and highlights a bias toward the creamy and sweet taste of food, you may want to have it as a unique experience.
2. Savory sticky rice
Sticky rice itself contains a high value of sugar and is often added with sweet ingredients like coconut milk and coconut shreds; so, sometimes it feels more like a dessert than a main dish. This is when people came up with different cooking methods and the addition of different kinds of meat-based ingredients, making them more diverse in their look and taste. Here are some common versions of savory sticky rice.
Xoi man, or savory sticky rice, is such an underrated dish among food lovers when traveling in Vietnam. If you have ever tried banh mi, that is probably the easiest way to picture xoi man because the ingredients are basically the same. Everyone loves banh mi without realizing that the savory sticky rice has everything banh mi does, except for the baguette.
In a full box of xoi man, you will find steamy white sticky rice served as a base. On top of it, the sellers spread a thin layer of scallion oil and pate before adding the matchstick-sized Vietnamese cold cuts. There are many types of cold cuts making up a colorful selection represented in the glass cupboard. Typically, they are cha lua (steamed pork rolls), cha que (cinnamon pork rolls), Vietnamese ham, and pork floss. Of course, we cannot skip pickled carrots and fresh cilantro.
Next time, when you stop for banh mi on the street, watch out for the rising smoke coming out from the steam pot where the sticky rice is constantly warmed up, and consider getting xoi man instead for a fun twist.
Xoi thit kho
Carrying on the list with sticky rice with caramelized braised pork, a delicacy of the capital city of Hanoi. Although it is available all year round, again due to the yin and yang principle, this dish is particularly favored in autumn and winter when the weather is cool (which represents yin elements) to balance the heat (or yang) of the dish.
Talk about the dish in more detail, sticky rice used for this dish is called yellow flower sticky rice. This breed is characterized by short and round grains and an elegant fragrance; hence, sticky rice made from this grain is of the highest quality. The star of the dish is the soft and tender caramelized pork, which is meticulously braised from the best pork belly – the one with a balanced proportion of meat and fat. To balance the glutinous and fatty taste, we often eat this sticky rice with freshly-made pickled onions, cucumber, and carrots. When being commercialized, people also braise eggs and Vietnamese pork rolls. Unlike other types of sticky rice which are served in a foam box or paper bags for takeaway, xoi thit kho is served in a small bowl or a plate for dining-in. A portion consists of well-cooked sticky rice, shiny and fatty braised pork that melts in your mouth and slightly sour pickles. If you are in Hanoi, make sure to try this because it is hard to find once you travel south.
You probably heard of this name before you even knew it. The call xoi khuc from the old, rusty speakers of the street vendors lingers in the night, traveling through the network of chaotic alleys in Saigon to make a living for its owner.
Xoi khuc is named after the native plant which it gets its unique green color from – khuc leaves. This specialty of Phu Tho City has gone beyond its homeland and become a popular evening snack. Although it is more filling and heavy to be called a “snack”, we found that no one really eats this for a meal.
If you have ever learned about Chung cake – the traditionally Vietnamese sticky rice cake, it is easier to think of xoi khuc as Chung cake but is made into sticky rice balls. Making xoi khuc is not a simple process. Khuc leaves are pounded before being mixed with rice flour and kneaded again until it forms a smooth dough. Inside each ball of xoi khuc, pork belly and pork fat seasoned with black pepper, scallion and other basic seasonings are held in a layer of well-pounded and steamed mung beans. These balls are then placed in a steam pot of white sticky rice, like little green eggs in a nest. After being cooked, xoi khuc has a chewy, mochi-like texture.
So picture this, the outermost is a white sticky rice coat, then a chewy layer of green dough, then a yellow layer of mung beans, and the innermost is pork belly and pork fat. We believe this level of dedication deserves more recognition among food lovers.
Among all the varieties of sticky rice, xoi xeo must be the one with the most intriguing name. Xoi xeo means inclined sticky rice which is surely as confusing as its Vietnamese name. This characterized name comes from the way the ingredients are cut at an inclined angle. There is no secret behind this cutting method, just that it is quicker and safer. Xoi xeo is connected with the calls from the street vendors in Hanoi for generations. It is a common scene to see a big crowd gathering around a bamboo-carrying pole waiting for a steamy and shiny yellow sticky rice, which is a yummy and filling breakfast.
Xoi xeo looks simple, but its making requires a certain level of skillfulness and subtlety. Sticky rice is cooked to a right degree where it remains soft and “non-sticky”. The most important ingredient, which not only makes up the name but also the unique taste of xoi xeo, is mung beans. Beans are slowly boiled until they fully bloom, then carefully ground into a smooth and cream-like paste before being pressed into a block that can be held comfortably with one hand.
A full combo of xoi xeo is one with yellow sticky rice, mung beans sliced along an inclined angle, finely pork or chicken floss, and crispy fried onions.
To close this chapter of xoi, we bring in xoi chien (or crispy sticky rice). Xoi chien, regarding its appearance, looks like a mini hamburger. Sticky rice is steamed and formed into a round shape with the diameter of a small bowl; then they are deep fried until the outside layer is crispy while the inside still remains soft and moist. For the fillings, you will find some of the most common vegetables used in Vietnamese savory cakes or snacks. Onions, carrots, wood-ear mushrooms, and jicama roots are chopped up finely. Extra corn can be added but is not necessary. This mixture of vegetables is mixed with minced pork and stir-fried with basic seasonings. For the sauce, we fry the scallion white stems for their fragrance, then add soya sauce, chili sauce, sugar and water, and mix well.
When eating, we put them all together in a cute little sticky rice burger by simply cutting open the re-formed sticky rice buns and then stuffing them with the cooked fillings. If you are buying xoi chien at the street vendors, they are put in paper bags with sauce on the side so you can adjust according to your taste. These tasty little buns hold everything you may look for from carbohydrates to protein and fiber, guaranteeing not only a delicious bite but also a satisfying snack.
How to eat xoi?
While sweet sticky rice is vegetarian-friendly and often eaten as breakfast or evening snacks, savory versions are more the main dish and can be eaten anytime during the day.
Sweet sticky rice with many colors and flavors is displayed on steam pots. Every time the vendor owner lifts the lid, a huge puff of steam is released, carrying the pleasant fragrance into the air and attracting any bypassers. Sweet sticky rice, to make it sweet, is served with a kind of xoi of your choice, a layer of mung bean paste, muoi me – sugar with a pinch of salt and roasted peanuts, and fresh coconut shreds. So, although this is a takeaway steamed food, you will still get all the flavors you can imagine. Traditionally, xoi is grabbed in a banana leaf or a lotus leaf, so that it will have a leafy taste and intimate sense; however, due to large demand and profitable reasons, you will find xoi is mostly sold in a foam take-out container instead. A box of sweet sticky rice ranges from 10,000 VND – 20,000 VND ($0.5 – 1$).
Unlike sweet sticky rice which is sold in many varieties at one food stall, savory sticky rice is more specialized, which means you cannot get a box of xoi xeo or xoi khuc at a xoi man stall. Xoi man is often sold together with banh mi. All the ingredients are displayed on a glass showcase counter, so you can easily point at whatever you want for your food; xoi xeo and xoi chien can only be found on the street food stalls mostly in the mornings and in the late afternoon respectively; xoi khuc is more of luck as it is often sold in a bamboo basket on the back of a bicycle riding through streets and alleys, notifying its presence with a street calls from a speaker in the bike’s front basket. Despite serving as the main meal, these savory sticky rice dishes are mostly takeaways, except for xoi thit kho – sticky rice with caramelized braised pork. A portion of savory sticky rice can cost from 20,000 VND – 50,000 VND ( $1 – $2.5) depending on the toppings you choose and the location you are having your food.
We hope you can at least try one of these xoi dishes, knowing that it is not only a flavorful must-try Vietnamese street food but also an unforgettable cultural experience of your travel.