The best advice for choosing good glutinous rice is to know exactly what it is, and what it is for. This is important because these varieties are often packaged using several other common terms; some can be inaccurate and misleading. It’s a good idea to read the packaging in its entirety. If it is packaged in clear plastic, some familiarity with what the grains usually look like will also help you choose.
The word glutinous is combined from the Latin words for “glue, or bond,” plus “to hold” and “full of.” It should not be confused with gluten, a protein that is indigestible by some people. Rice does not contain gluten. Nevertheless, because gluten is associated by some health-conscious people as undesirable, some packagers may have chosen not to use this proper name. If your package is labeled “glutinous,” you can be certain it is the right product.
All rice is to some degree sticky, but glutinous rice is unique. When cooked, the individual grains will stick together with an adhesion strength more like that of chewing gum. A Chinese restaurant may list it on a menu as “sticky rice,” but this term is rarely used in packaging dry grains. While rice is sold in nearly every market of the world, glutinous rice is likely to be found only in stores specializing in Asian groceries.
Although there are several thousand varieties of rice, they are all just agricultural strains of the grass Oryza sativa. It’s unlikely that your package will be identified as Oryza sativa var. glutinosa. This is a generalization, but most long-grained rice has been bred to separate, and stick together less, after cooking. If your package contains thin, long and oblong grains, it would be advisable to be circumspect.
Most glutinous rice is not only short-grained, but often shorter and more plump than normal. They often appear milky white with a highly polished surface, and are sometimes called waxy rice. This is true even of the brown varieties whose kernels are still covered in an exterior shell called its bran. Other uncommon varieties include grains colored black, or purple.
Both the cultivation and consumption of glutinous rice is mostly confined to Asian countries. Among them, it is a staple of the Laotian diet, where it is called khao niao. In some countries, they are a specialized rice variety that is used mainly as a dessert ingredient. For example, in Japan where it is called mochi gome, the cooked rice is repeatedly pounded with a wet mallet until it becomes a smooth loaf, with the textural bite of chewing gum. There, the rice is often filled or paired with other sweet ingredients.
One of the most common packaging labels for glutinous rice is “sweet rice.” This is not a reference to its taste, but rather, to its overly popular use for sweet dishes and confections. Some countries cook the rice in sweet coconut milk, while others may steam the rice with sweet ingredients in a candy wrapper of banana leaves. There is also a type of fluffy, long-grained rice closely related to the jasmine strain that is also called sweet rice. The two should not be confused when you make your choice.