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The Romance of Basmati

May 12, 1999|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Basmati: The name is romantic, promising sumptuous pilafs and intricately spiced biryanis of rice so fragrant that it is incredible to eat just by itself.

So what is basmati rice, really? For starters, it's a long-grain rice exported from northwestern India and Pakistan. Basmati is cultivated in the United States too, but the rice is affected by differences in soil and water in the same way that wines vary according to the region and vineyard where the grapes are grown.

The name ba^smati has nothing to do with length of grain. It's simply an Urdu word meaning fragrant (and is properly pronounced with the accent on the first syllable). In actuality, there are short- and medium-grain Basmatis and Basmatis ground as fine as coarse semolina.

Basmati is far from an all-purpose rice. Its strong aroma and firm, slinky grains enable it to stand up to the rich dishes of Mogul cuisine--meats with creamy sauces enriched with ground nuts, for example. Serve it alongside dishes from other cuisines such as chicken teriyaki, Thai chicken curry or Korean barbecued beef and the flavor becomes intrusive, as awkward as lace and sequins at a football game. The texture is not right for those dishes either.

Basmati is far from the only rice prized in India. Different types are favored in the south and east of the country. And it is not uniformly aristocratic. There are quite ordinary Basmatis, and there are versions that sell for more than $100 a pound.

"Literally, you buy Basmati like you buy pearls," says Julie Sahni, author of the newly published book, "Julie Sahni's Introduction to Indian Cooking" (Ten Speed Press, $16.95). "You put the grains in your hand and examine them. It is a ritual. There should be a certain proportion of width to length. You go through perhaps a dozen types before you even sniff their fragrance.

"I would look carefully to see that the rice grains did not have any white spots--just the opposite of what you look for in Arborio, which is known for its high starch content." That starch turns Arborio into the soft, moist, stick-together rice that is ideal for risotto but just the opposite of what is wanted in Basmati. Properly cooked Basmati will remain flaky and separate.

"It should fall from a spoon like flower petals," Sahni says.

The raw grains should be very light in color, a pale beige, says Sahni. She treasures a stash of 50-year-old Basmati that has turned yellow over the years. Such rice is so costly and extraordinary that it would be served only on a memorable occasion; Sahni is saving it for her son's wedding. In India, rice of this caliber would be kept for connoisseurs, Sahni says. "If they know you, they will bring it out. Such rice would cost $130 to $140 a pound. It is like buying antique jewelry."

Few will ever see, much less taste, such rice, but no matter. "Most people should be quite happy with what we get in this country today. America is paying a premium price. The best rice is being exported here," Sahni says.

Not all Basmati is white. Unpolished brown Basmati also has found a market in the United States but is not valued in India. "Unfortunately, it doesn't look pretty, like a white Basmati, because the brown coating inhibits smooth expansion of the grains," Sahni explains.

Top-quality white Basmati is well polished. "When the grain is polished, it doesn't absorb water so quickly and it stays separate, producing long grains," says Sunil Vora, owner of the Clay Pit Indian restaurant in Brentwood. The best Basmati is well aged, and the sacks of rice sold here are often labeled "aged." "The older it gets, the better," says Vora. Old rice absorbs water slowly as it cooks, and this results in dry, flaky rice.

The same brand of Basmati may not always taste the same. "Rice is like wine, basically. Some years, the crop is good; some years, not as good," Vora says.

Basmati was once rare in this country. Today the demand is such that it has crept into supermarkets, adding to the wardrobe of rices that cater to the many styles of cooking popular in the United States.

The Clay Pit's Lamb Biryani

Active Work Time: 30 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 2 hours

This dish may require a lot of ingredients, but it's easy to assemble and can be prepared in advance, then finished at the last minute in case you're cooking for guests.

LAMB

6 tablespoons oil

2 cups sliced onion

4 to 6 whole cloves

4 to 6 green cardamom pods

1 (2-inch) cinnamon stick

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

2 to 3 bay leaves

2 pounds cubed lamb

1 (3- to 4-ounce) tomato, chopped

1/2 cup yogurt

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon paprika

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 3/4 cups water

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