On a trip to the northern province of Lao Cai, a traveler should taste the five-color steamed sticky rice in the province’s Bac Ha District, about 90 kilometers from Lao Cai City, the province’s capital
Steamed sticky rice is a popular snack, particularly a breakfast dish, in Vietnam. A version of this dish which has five colors is an important dish for almost all ethnic minorities in the northern mountainous region. In Bac Ha District of Lao Cai Province, the five-color steamed sticky rice is prepared from the best glutinous rice strain grown in Bac Ha, which gives the dish a special stickiness.
This is among the most “colorful” dishes in Bac Ha as a handful of it already has five colors—green, yellow, purple, red and white. According to local people, each color of the steamed rice has its own meaning.
The green color represents the vastness of forests and mountains. To obtain this color, cooks of Tay, Dao, Mong and Thai ethnic minorities burn the crust of local pomelos into ash and soak it together with the sticky rice.
The yellow color, which symbolizes prosperity and wealth just like a bumper rice crop, is from turmeric tubes which are pounded to get the juice to be used to steam the sticky rice.
To have the purple color, which represents fertile soil, cooks pick leaves of com den, a local wild tree. The leaves are cleaned, boiled and soaked with the sticky rice so that the steamed rice will obtain the color.
For the red color, which stands for fire and zeal, is from Momordica cochichinensis.
Finally, the white color is a sign of purity, everlasting love and loyalty. To have this white color, no natural colorant is used so that the sticky rice keeps its original color when being steamed.
Each portion of sticky rice is steamed separately with the colorants to obtain the wanted colors. After the colored sticky rice portions are boiled one by one, they are put in only one container to have the five colors, with the white rice on top. The colorful sticky rice together with sesame salt may be unforgettable to those who taste it for the first time.
Bac Ha Fair is one of the biggest fairs in the northwestern region. On Sunday, the market-day, steamers of five-color sticky rice at Bac Ha Fair are displayed at the food section. A ration of the sticky rice is sold for VND10,000 which can help a diner feel full until lunch.
In the northern mountainous region, five-color steamed sticky rice is often prepared for house warming ceremonies, wedding parties and death anniversaries.