Just ten years ago, Indian-grown basmati white rice was virtually a culinary secret to American cooks unless they had traveled in India or had a palate for ethnic world cuisine. Basmati rice is the preferred choice of Indians everywhere in the world.
One taste and imported basmati rice will be your favorite rice. I guarantee it. So many of my friends go from store to store looking for a brand they picked up on a whim, fell in love with, and want to find again. It can be packaged in boxes, plastic bags, even burlap sacks. Basmati is ever so delightfully delicate both in texture and flavor. It gives credence to the label “aromatic” rice.
Once relegated to North Indian regional cooking, basmati is today a favorite long-grain rice for everyday cooking due to its distinctive mild flavor and firm, extra-long grains that increase in length by more than three times after cooking. Literally translating to the “queen of fragrance” due to the perfumed, nutty aroma exuded during the cooking, basmati rice is so delicious it can be eaten plain. Cultivated in the humid river flood plains of the Indian Himalayan foothills and Pakistan for thousands of years, the key to the unique flavor is the aging process in burlap bags for at least one year. The aging develops the translucent milk-white grains and fragrant aroma that is characteristic of the best Indian basmati.
Basmati is aged from 6 months to a year in burlap sacks layered with fresh neem leaves (a bitter herb also called curry leaves), an ancient tree that looks like a bay tree, native to East India that is a natural insecticide, to dry it out and develop its flavor; your rice should never smell musty.
The Mississippi Delta and Northern California have successfully developed high-yield domestic basmati crops using Indian seed strains, which end closer in look and flavor to regular long-grain white rice than its Indian counterparts due to the difference in climate and soil. While the rice has a nutty aroma while cooking, the flavor and fragrance is lost after cooking. The stringent US milling process and quality control produce a clean rice that does not need washing like the Indian rices to remove their protective coating of starch. I consider domestic basmati a totally different rice than the imported brands, but still a satisfying rice that holds up well in composed rice dishes like jambalaya, casseroles, and pilafs. Domestic basmati is excellent after refrigeration for reheating the next day, cold salads, and fried rice dishes. Keep your Indian basmati as your special table rice, fresh from the rice cooker.
Look for basmati in grocery stores, food warehouses, and gourmet markets, as well as in Indian and Asian markets. Indian groceries often carry a wide variety of brands and sizes, as well as a house label. In my local Indian grocery stores, like India Cash and Carry, prominently display at least 10 to 15 varieties of basmati rice, all imported from India and Pakistan in 15 to 20 kilo sacks made of jute or plastic.
The best grades are Dehraduni and Patna Basmati, denoting the regions where they are grown, but just look in the box: the rather small, needle-like grains should all be whole, rather than broken. Widely available imported brands, such as Elephant, Lal Quila, Daawat, Kochinoor, Topfa, Super Pari, Tiger, Natraj, Royal, and Tilda, come in 10-, 20-, and 55-pound burlap, jute, or thick paper bags with little stitched on handles and a zipper closing. Especially nice is an inner plastic bag to retain freshness and cleanliness. Grocery stores carry Tilda in 6- and 14-ounce boxes, good for your first venture in cooking Indian basmati. Look for domestic basmati in 1- and 2-pound plastic or fabric bags from Lundberg Family Farms on the West Coast, and Della east of the Rockies. Stored in a cool, dry place, raw white basmati will keep indefinitely.
But for all its delicious nature, the trend is changing and my Indian friends are switching to non-basmati brands, long grain white rice bought at the Asian grocery, to cut cost, buying basmati rice packs for special occasions like pujas or special guests. The import tariffs have driven up the price of imported basmati. But it is a rice now we can’t live without.
Recipe for Basic Everyday Plain Basmati Rice
This is also the proportion guide to use for domestic basmati and the lesser known imported Indian Tohfa and Kohinoor basmatis. Some cooks drop a pat of butter or a squeeze of lime juice in the water before cooking. The grain elongates up to three times its length as it cooks, rather than plumping out, and cooks in a very short time, around 30 minutes usually, depending on the freshness of the rice (older rice will take slightly longer).
Machine: Medium (6 cup) rice cooker
- 1 cup white basmati rice
- 1 1/2 cups water
- 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
Place the rice in bowl and fill with cold water. Swish it around with your fingers. Bits of grain will float to the top, it will foam around the edges, and the water become murky. Carefully pour off the water and wash a second time. If the rice water is still murky, wash and drain again; basmati usually takes 2 to 4 washings. Discard the wash water. An optional step is to let the basmati air dry in the strainer for 30 minutes or to soak it in a bowl covered with cold water for 30 minutes. Drain well.
Place the rice in the rice bowl. Add the water and salt to the rice bowl; swirl to combine. Close the cover and program for the regular cooking cycle.
At the end of the cooking cycle, fluff the rice with a wooden or plastic rice paddle. Let the rice rest 10 minutes on the Keep Warm cycle. Serve hot.
Excerpted from The Ultimate Rice Cooker Cookbook, by Beth Hensperger and Julie Kaufmann. (c) 2002, used by permission from the Harvard Common Press.
Recipe and text copyright Beth Hensperger 2016
Please enjoy the recipe and make it your own. If you copy the recipe and text for internet use, please include my byline and link to my site.