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RICE

In Rice, as in Life, There's No Guarantee

May 12, 1999|BARBARA HANSEN

Basmati is not a magic word that guarantees perfect, fragrant long-grain rice. As a comparison tasting in The Times Test Kitchen revealed, quality varies from brand to brand, and the wrong cooking method can turn the best rice into a soggy mess.

The tasting examined 11 white and three brown Basmatis. Most were imported from northern India and Pakistan. Two domestic brands were also judged.

The rices came from supermarkets, health food stores and Indian markets. Only one, Champagne Sinha Basmati rice, is not available in local shops. This rice is distributed only in the New York area, but experts praised it so highly that we ordered some to use as a standard in judging. It is available by mail order. For information, contact Sinha Trading Co. at (212) 683-4419.

The white Basmatis were prepared according to a method recommended by Indian cookbook author Julie Sahni (see story on Page HX). Package instructions, we learned, are not necessarily reliable. When two Food Section cooks followed directions printed on a bag of Indian brown Basmati, the results were ghastly. When Sahni prepared the same rice according to her own method, it was excellent. Therefore, we suggest patience for any rice if it's not perfect on the first try.

Sinha did emerge as one of the four top rices. The others were Lal Qilla, Elephant and Royal brands. All had flaky texture, attractive long grains and pleasant aroma and flavor, though some were more subtle than others.

Lal Qilla is distributed here but hard to find. We had to go to Little India in Artesia to obtain a sack, which included a folder of cooking instructions and recipes.

This rice is manufactured by Amar Singh Chawal Wala, chawal wala meaning rice dealer. We were impressed by the romantic address for the manufacturer--"outside Chattiwind Gate, Amritsar." (Amritsar is in the Punjab in northern India.)

Royal comes in hefty burlap sacks or half-pound boxes. We bought one of the latter at a Ralphs supermarket and noticed that Royal also has a line of flavored rices.

Sacks of Elephant brand Basmati are carried by most Indian markets. Like Lal Qilla, this rice comes from Amritsar, and the sack indicates that it has been aged and pre-cleaned.

Other white Basmatis tested included Indus Valley, Pari, Tilda and house brands from Trader Joe's and Bharat Bazaar, an Indian market in West Los Angeles. Of these, Indus Valley, which claims to be organic, and Tilda received the most favorable comments.

At the bottom of the ranking were two domestic white Basmatis: Lundberg Family White Basmati, a California-grown organic rice that is available at health food stores, and Texmati, a Texas-grown Basmati stocked by some supermarkets. Both lacked Basmati character. The grains were medium rather than long, and cooked up sticky and mushy.

They seemed more appropriate to cuisines such as Japanese and Korean that favor stickier rice. Later, we used these rices in testing a recipe for Creole red beans and rice and found them satisfactory for this purpose. They would not, however, stand up in a north Indian or Middle Eastern pilaf.

In a further test, we let the 11 cooked white Basmatis stand overnight at room temperature, then checked their texture by fluffing with a fork. The four winners were still light and flaky, and their aroma was still pleasant. (We did not taste them, of course; for safety reasons, cooked rice should always be stored in the refrigerator.)

The winner in a separate test of three brown Basmatis was Zebra brand from Pakistan. This company suggests several cooking methods. The open pan method--cooking uncovered in a generous amount of water, then draining and steaming--produced good results. The microwave cooking instructions resulted in disaster.

The two other brown Basmatis were Trader Joe's house brand, which cooked up wet and mushy, and Lundberg Family brown Basmati. The Lundberg brand had a nice chewy texture and nutty flavor but tasted like regular brown rice, rather than Basmati.

Imported Basmati is typically sold in sacks of 10 pounds or more, because Indian families consume rice often and in large amounts. The rices that we bought in sizes appropriate to small households were Royal, Indus Valley, Texmati, Lundberg Family and the Trader Joe's and Bharat Bazaar house brands.

If rices were judged solely on the basis of the information provided by the manufacturer, the winner would be Tilda. Tilda's 10-pound sack provides ample space to explain four cooking methods, discuss portion control, provide storage and reheating instructions, give a nutritional analysis, indicate how the rice is enriched, print an expiration date and present a chart on how much rice to cook and how much water to add in imperial and metric measures.

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