Rice is the seed of a grass-like plant. It is the third-highest cultivated crop in the world, after sugarcane and maize. Given that both maize and sugarcane are commonly used for livestock feed and other uses, rice could arguably be the world’s largest crop for human consumption. It is the staple diet of nearly half the world’s population, providing around one-quarter of the world’s calorific intake. Its cultivation consumes around one-tenth of the world’s labour.
Basmati rice is a long-grain variety of rice that has long, slender grains and a distinctive aroma. The word basmati is derived from from the Sanskrit term meaning “fragrant”.
The Indian Basmati Export Development Foundation is the body responsible for identifying and accrediting rices to allow the term basmati in their names. Most of the criteria relate to the length and breadth of both the cooked and uncooked grains.
Basmati rice has been cultivated in the Indian subcontinent since at least 5,000BCE. Today this region produces about 80% of the world’s basmati rice.
cooking basmati rice
The average serving size of cooked rice with the main dish is 250 g or 1 metric cup. Typically this requires 125 g or 1/2 metric cup of uncooked rice per serve.
You usually require twice the volume of liquid, water or stock, or a combination, to the volume of rice. Need eight servings? That will be four metric cups of rice and eight metric cups of liquid. Different cooking techniques may need different ratios, so please read the recipe carefully.
Always wash the rice to remove excess starch. Indian cuisine usually prefers rice that is not clumped together by starchy residue. Always soak the rice for 30 minutes, not longer, to aid the cooking process.
There are three main ways to cook rice in Indian cuisine – boiling, absorption and steaming – and each has different characteristics.
Boiling is where you have a lot of water compared to the volume of rice. You will cook the rice at a simmer, after a rolling boil, then drain the rice to serve. This technique is most commonly used when you only need to partially cook the rice, such as in biryanis.
For steamed rice, you place the rice in a steamer, cook for a while, then place the rice into some stock and spices and allow the rice to absorb the flavours. The drained rice is then returned to the steamer to finish cooking.
For absorption cooking, you place the exact amount of rice and liquid in a pan and slowly cook until all the liquid has been absorbed. Our recipe for plain basmati rice describes this absorption method. This is the most common way to cook rice in India.
Stock is mentioned because there is much more you can do than produce a plate of plain rice. In what are rice, pulao and biryani we discuss some of the basic rice dish styles and approaches. Once you have tried a home-made pulao there is no turning back, I promise you.
buying basmati rice
You can get good basmati rice from your supermarket. You can get better basmati rice from an Indian grocer.
With basmati rice, you generally get what you pay for. I have a particular favourite, produced by Kohinoor Foods, that I get from my Indian grocer. It costs around three times what I could pay in a supermarket. But the difference is noticeable, with those prized long, slender grains and no tendency to clump together. The taste is exquisite.
You will find aged rice and parboiled rice. Generally, aged rice is good. Parboiled rice, however, is something quite different. You may be tempted to avoid it, thinking it like the supermarket instant rice, where you just put it in the microwave then serve. Proper parboiled rice is called sella rice. It is parboiled before the husk is milled and has a golden colour. It is something quite special.
If you are in a good Indian grocer, talk to them and seek their advice.
I advocate against buying large quantities of rice, like the sacks often on offer. It may be convenient, it may be what they claim is “restaurant quality”, and it may be economically attractive. Whilst it may well be good rice, unless you prepare and eat such rice in industrial quantities, a 10kg sack will just be infested with moths before you finish it. At a 250g serving size, a 10kg sack will make around a hundred servings. If you eat Indian food two or three times a week, are a family of four, then that is about three months’ supply.
Remember too, that basmati rice is not general-purpose rice and is not really suitable for Asian or European dishes. You are going to either have a big family, lots of guests or eat a lot of Indian food to call for that sort of purchase.
Given that you paid attention to my advice about about not over-buying, rice is easy to store. Keep it in an air-tight container in a dark place.
It should keep almost indefinitely, but be careful and check for infestation before using rice that has been stored for a while.
If you plan on keeping cooked rice, be aware that cooked rice can contain Bacillus cereus which produces a toxin at room temperature. When storing cooked rice for later use, rapid chilling is necessary to reduce the risk of toxin production. You need to get the cooked rice below 4C as quickly as possible. The toxin is heat-resistant and whilst reheating kills the bacteria, it does not destroy the toxin already present. Note that many refrigerators are set to 4.5C which is not really cold enough to solve this problem.