I am now beginning to rediscover Basmati rice. The way it usually works for most foodies is that we are brought up to regard Basmati as the gold standard of rice. Then, as we expand our gastronomic horizons, we discover other kinds of rice: the nutty red rice of Goa, the many wonderful rice varieties of Kerala, and even the great Italian risotto rice breeds or Thai jasmine rice. We decide that perhaps we have been too restrictive in our approach by worshipping Basmati. There are many other interesting rice breeds all over the world. Even in India, we tell ourselves, there are rice varieties that are easily the equal of Basmati.
But eventually, I think we all come around to one inescapable fact: Basmati is very special. It may or may not be the king of rice. But it is one of India's great national treasures, on par with saffron from Kashmir, pepper from Kerala or tea from Darjeeling. And it is crazy for us not to value a rice variety that is the envy of the world.
What makes Basmati so special? After all, there are thousands of rice varieties. Why is Basmati deserving of special attention?
Well, first of all, Basmati is an Indian rice that we've grown in the foothills of the Himalayas for many centuries. (Don't pay any attention to that old fable about Dost Mohammad Khan bringing Basmati to the Doon Valley.)
Secondly, the best kinds of Basmati, such as the Super Basmati (from Dehradun) have very long grains that stay separate and distinct even when you cook them. And like fine wine, really good Basmati needs to be aged. The older the rice, the more refined the taste. (There is a scientific reason for this: the older the rice, the lower its moisture content - and rice with less moisture cooks better). Great Basmati needs to be several years old.
The real reason most of us prize Basmati so much, however, is the fragrance. Ask Indians to describe the smell of freshly-cooked Basmati and most of us will say 'buttery'. But actually the smell is not really buttery - which is why the rice improves when you add a little clarified butter or ghee.
Scientists have now isolated the compound that gives Basmati its special fragrance. It is called 2-acetyl-1-pyrroline and is found in most rice varieties. But Basmati has about a dozen times more of this compound than other kinds of rice. That is why the smell is so intense that it can fill the room. And that accounts for all our childhood memories of the smell of freshly-cooked rice. You find the same compound in the pandanus leaf, which is an important ingredient of Far Eastern cookery (where they claim the smell is similar to vanilla.) But we know pandanus in India as kewda, which we call the screw-pine.
Traditional Muslim chefs will flavour a biryani with kewda. They do this - without understanding the chemistry - to add an extra heft of 2-acetyl-1-pyrroline to the rice and thereby accentuate what we recognise subliminally as the fragrance of good quality Basmati. (A more cynical explanation is that they do it to mimic the aroma of good Basmati even when they are using poor quality Basmati.)
So Basmati is really one of the world's most special rice varieties. It isn't just the flavour and the shape of the grains. It is also that distinctive aroma that few other rice breeds can hope to match. Small wonder then that in 2000, an American company called Rice Tec tried to patent a Basmati hybrid. After India objected, there has been broad agreement that real Basmati must have a geographical origin in the sub-continent. (Like Parma ham from Parma or champagne from the Champagne region of France.)
My friend Gautam Anand, who is as passionate a foodie as anyone I know, was intrigued to discover that while the rice dishes of the Middle East used many different kinds of rice, Iranians loved Basmati. He did some research and found a story dating back to Humayun, the second Mughal emperor. (A version of this tale also appears in Lizzie Collingham's Curry.)
Apparently, when he was in Persia, Humayun threw a banquet for the Shah and served Indian food made by his cooks. While the Iranians were impressed with the food, they were particularly taken with a simple vegetarian dish: the Dal Khushka. (In Collingham's version it is a khichadi-type of dish made with peas.) They had never before come across a rice with so much flavour and an aroma that lingered for days. The Iranians fell in love with Basmati and have continued importing it from India for centuries afterwards. (They also fell in love with haldi and Iran remains a great importer of Indian turmeric.)
Aged, long-grain basmati rice 2 cups, Water (the ratio of water to rice varies with age of rice) 4 - 4 1/4 cups, salt to taste, Lemon juice 1 tbsp, Desi ghee 2 tbsp
Clean, wash and soak basmati rice for 30 minutes. Keep rice ready for cooking.
Take measured water in a thick-walled pot and bring to boil. Thick-walled pots distribute the heat evenly throughout the rice.
Once the water begins to boil, add salt, lemon juice, stir once and then, add the soaked rice. Bring to full boil for a minute, stir gently once or twice while boiling, reduce heat to medium. Add desi ghee / vegetable oil and stir very gently once and cook.
Lower heat and then cover the pot with a tight lid (or first a wet kitchen cloth and cover with lid). For even better results, seal the lid with wheat dough or a tight seal with aluminium foil and then place the lid.
Once the lid is placed, heat must remain very low, just enough to maintain a gentle simmer.
Remove from heat and let the rice sit for 5 minutes to allow the fragile grain to firm up. Remove the lid gently and fluff the rice with a large fork.
Lamb 1 kg, Basmati rice 1 kg, Potato 1/2 kg, Tomato 1/2 kg, Yoghurt 250 gms, Red chilli powder 25 gms, Salt 100 gms, Onions 500 gms, Garlic paste 50 gms, Ginger 75 gms, Green cardamom 10 gms, Black cardamom 5 gms, Cloves 5 gms, Black pepper 10 gms, Cumin seeds 5 gms, Cinnamon 1 stick, Bay leaves 2, Ghee 250 gms, Green chillies 25 gms, Coriander leaves 25 gms, Mint leaves 10 gms, Kewra 5 ml, Saffron 1/4 gms, Orange juice 100 ml, Dry prunes 100 gms
Slice the onion and fry it in ghee until it is light brown. Take out half of it and keep aside.
Add garlic, ginger, salt, chilli powder, cloves, cardamoms, black peppercorn, cumin seeds, bay leaves, cinnamon, and yoghurt to the remaining half.
Fry this until the water evaporates and then add the lamb and fry it again. Add some water and cook on low heat until the lamb is tender and the water has evaporated again.
Peel the potatoes and cut them into large chunks. Boil until they're half cooked.
Soak the rice in water for half an hour.
Boil the rice and drain the water off when it is half done.
To the lamb, add chopped tomatoes, slit green chillies, mint, coriander leaves, dry prunes, boiled potatoes and the brown onion kept aside.
Layer the rice with tender-cooked lamb in a pot, sprinkle a mixture of saffron, orange juice and kewda.
Keep the lid closed and cook this on low heat until the rice is done. Gently mix it before serving. Serve with raita.
Heston's Basmati and Chicken Stock
Make chicken stock as normal in a pressure cooker.
When the stock has cooled, add thinly sliced carrots (about 2 large carrots to eight chicken thighs); one large onion sliced, one leek, also sliced, two cloves of garlic and five whole peppercorns.
Rinse 100gm basmati under cold water.
Return the pressure cooker to the heat and put off the gas after 30 minutes. When the stock mixture is still warm, add one bunch of parsley and leave to infuse for 30 minutes.
Strain the stock through a sieve to another pan. Add basmati and simmer for 20 minutes then discard the rice.
The stock is now ready to be used anywhere you would normally use stock.
This story accords with my childhood memories of meals in Iran in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Even at lavish banquets, where caviar was the starter and a variety of meat dishes were served, a special delicacy would be a bowl of steamed (but still dry) Basmati rice that was so aromatic that the smell entered your clothes. The Iranians would add a dollop of butter and serve it on its own without any gravy.
Looking back, I sometimes wonder if perhaps we make a mistake by treating Basmati as a biryani rice in India. Of course it makes for great biryani. But by the time they have added the meat, the intense stock (jhol), the masalas and the kewda, little remains of the distinctive flavour and fragrance of Basmati. Isn't there a way in which we can create Basmati dishes that preserve the aromas and flavours?
It turned out that his research into Iranian ways with Basmati had inspired Gautam to look for the same sort of thing. It cannot be a coincidence that the menu at the new Welcomhotel in Jodhpur, which Gautam incubated, contains a dish called Thar Pulao, which is nothing like the famous biryanis of ITC, but preserves the flavour of the Basmati despite using meat and spices.
Akshraj Jodha, the chef at the hotel (he is the guy who provided the Mayo Mutton curry recipe I carried here some weeks ago) sent me the recipe. Jodha says it is a Rajput dish (Jodha is a Rajput) but given that pulao came to India from Persia (Humayun's cooks brought the best recipes with them), I suspect that there is some Persian influence to the dish.
I've included the recipe here even though I'm not sure it is really a recipe for the home cook. But if you like a little adventure in the kitchen, do try it. At present, it is only available in Jodhpur but I've seen it served at banquets at the Maurya and I'm pretty sure it is going to be one of those hit dishes you will soon find all over India. (You can dispense with the kewda in the recipe.)
If you are a vegetarian and just want to enjoy the flavour of Basmati, then I have included a recipe for khushka that Gautam sent me. You can eat it with pretty much anything. And if you are a Western chef, then there's a third recipe you might enjoy. Heston Blumenthal loves the aroma of Basmati rice and wants to add its flavour to dishes that don't use Basmati. His recipe is for a Chicken and Basmati stock. The chicken gives it body, the Basmati gives it fragrance and flavour.
Whichever recipe you choose to try, remember this: Basmati is India's great contribution to the world of gastronomy. It is as delicious as truffles, foie gras or any of the so-called luxury ingredients you pay a bomb for. But because it is easily available and relatively affordable, we take it for granted.
But let's not repeat the mistake India made with tea: Darjeeling never gets its due in the world market. Let's celebrate and enjoy this greatest and most Indian of rice varieties.
From HT Brunch, April 13
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