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Memories of Dried Shiitakes, Sweet Chinese Sausage, and Sticky Rice

For my brother Dale and I, Chinese sticky rice has been both the hallmark and the bane of the Thanksgivings each of us has hosted over the years.

This traditional dish of glutinous rice studded with salty dried shrimp, slices of fatty Chinese sausage, earthy shiitakes, and crunchy bits of water chestnuts has been a staple at our family’s Thanksgivings since I can remember.

But the sticky rice also has proved, well, a sticking point. You see, try as we might, for years he and I could never make sticky rice that proved up to snuff for our Mom.

My late-Mom took pride in all that she did, and was quite the perfectionist. When she sewed, if a stitch was at all crooked, she’d rip it out and start over. When I used to sew as a teenager, I was less fastidious. I remember times when an inner seam might turn out a little less than straight, and I’d tell her, “Nobody will ever see it.” She’d give me that look, which basically said, “Yes, but you will know it’s crooked. You will know you did not do it as best you could.” All it took was that look, and the next thing I knew, I’d be ripping out the thread to redo it.

Of course, with a rice cooker full of steaming sticky rice cooking away, it’s a little harder to rip things out and start over.

Still, even as a child, I remember my Mom anxious over the outcome of the sticky rice. It was always made in the big rice cooker, not the smaller one we used for everyday meals. She’d peer into the rice cooker now and then to stir the contents or to monitor its progress. She’d fret if it wasn’t cooking as fast as it should. She’d sigh if it started sticking on the bottom of the inner pot.

Who knew rice could be so nerve-wracking?

When each of us got married, my brother Dale and I would take turns hosting the family Thanksgiving feast at our respective houses. And even if stuffing, potatoes or pasta were also on the menu, we’d still make sticky rice. It wasn’t a Jung Thanksgiving without it.

No matter how it came out, everyone would always enjoy a big scoop of it on their plates along with turkey, and the rest of the fixings. My Mom would always let us know what she thought of it, too. My husband even started turning it into a game every Thanksgiving; he’d purposely ask her, “Is the sticky rice as good as yours?” And we’d all wait with bated breath for the answer.

“Not salty enough,” she said once about my brother’s rendition.

“Too mushy,” she said another time about my first feeble attempt.

Then, there was the year I thought I’d inject a modern twist by using black rice instead. When she saw it, I think she thought I’d lost my mind.

Even after a stroke left her speech severely impaired and she could manage only one-word responses, my Mom still managed to pass judgment on the sticky rice. My husband would still ask her, “So is Dale’s rice as good as yours?”

Invariably, she would answer, “No.”

And we would all stifle a laugh at this Thanksgiving tradition we’d grown to enjoy as much as the sticky rice itself.

Because after all, no matter what she remarked about the rice, my Mom always ate it heartily just the same. I think she knew that unwavering constant in life just as all Moms do: No one can ever make a dish quite as good as their Mom’s original one. But I think she was pleased we continued to try our very best to do so.

This Thanksgiving, I’ll be making the sticky rice. I’ll be using a recipe I’ve managed to perfect after many attempts. It’s similar to my Mom’s, but I like to add a few more flourishes, including freshly roasted chestnuts, slivered green onions, and a splash of mirin (Japanese rice wine).

I’ll be making it in the same big rice cooker my Mom once used. And when I take my first forkful of sticky rice that night, I know my Mom will be there in spirit, pleased that comforting dish graces our holiday table as always.

My Version of My Mom’s Sticky Rice

(serves 10)

1/2 cup dried shrimp

16 dried shiitake mushrooms

5 sweet Chinese sausages (lop chong), diced

1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger

14 roasted chestnuts, peeled, and coarsely diced

8 fresh or canned water chestnuts, diced (optional)

3 green onions, chopped

2 tablespoons mirin

4 tablespoons oyster sauce, divided use

2 teaspoons sesame oil, divided use

2 1/2 cups glutinous or sticky rice, washed and drained

1/2 cup jasmine rice, washed and drained

3 cups chicken broth

1 teaspoon dark soy sauce

Soak dried shrimp in a bowl of warm water for about 20 minutes. Soak dried mushrooms in another bowl of warm water for about 20 minutes. Drain shrimp and chop. Drain mushrooms, cut off woody stem, and chop mushroom caps.

Heat peanut oil in large saute pan or wok over medium-high heat. Add Chinese sausages and minced ginger, and stir. Cook about 2 minutes. Add dried shrimp, dried mushrooms, roasted chestnuts, water chestnuts, green onion, 1 tablespoon mirin, 1 tablespoon oyster sauce, and 1 teaspoon sesame oil. Stir, and allow to cook for about 2 minutes. Remove from heat. Cool to room temperature. Mixture can be made up to 2 days ahead, and stored covered in refrigerator.

Place sticky rice and jasmine rice in a bowl of a 5.6-cup or larger rice cooker. Add chicken broth, 3 tablespoons oyster sauce, 1 teaspoon dark soy sauce, and 1 teaspoon sesame oil. Cover and refrigerate for about 1 hour before cooking.

When ready to cook, place rice in bowl in your rice cooker.  Pour sausage-chestnut-mushroom mixture over the top. Cook in rice cooker, following manufacturer’s directions. Once cooked, allow to steam for about 15 minutes before lifting the lid. Stir cooked rice so all ingredients are incorporated, then serve. 

From Carolyn Jung