“Each grain of rice should be elongated, separated, curved and slender like a girl’s eyelashes,” say the women in my family.
Basmati means ‘fragrant’ in Hindi and may just be the Jewel in the Crown of rice varieties. Regrettably, my first attempt at dealing with this Jewel was a bit of a disaster. At an end of term dinner I hosted at uni, the Basmati I prepared was something of a throwback to my kindergarten days; resembling papier-mâché paste. As students, we often starve and are not so discerning about what goes through our mouths. After all, it simply cannot get much worse than tuna casserole, black pudding and fried toast in the College cafeteria, can it? Or so one would think. At the dinner, everyone unapologetically passed over the rice as they filled their plates with ginger chicken, zeera aloo (cumin-spiced potatoes), raita and store-bought pita bread as a stand-in for rice.
At eighteen, I left home for uni with a recipe for Béchamel sauce and Victoria sponge, but no knowledge of how to prepare Basmati. Growing up, Basmati was eaten almost daily in our home. Every evening, we would sit at table to see a bread basket with chapatis peeking out from under the linen, but I waited for that steaming mound of rice to arrive from the kitchen. To be drowned in ladles of spicy gravy. Perhaps that is why it never occurred to me to learn something so seemingly basic, yet delicately complex in its preparation method. Learning to prepare Basmati the Afghan way, in the manner of my father’s family, was a rite of passage to becoming A Real Cook. I dont think I got it quite right till I was in my early twenties. It’s a rather fiddly dish and these are the things I learnt from my Ami, my mum, along the way:
- Wash the rice 4-6 times in cold water till the water transforms from milky to clear. Washing away the nutrients may seem frivolous, but this lightens the grain; when you see the airy lightness of this fragile and delicate grain, you’ll understand why.
- The rice should be soaked a minimum of 30 minutes (maximum 24 hours) to allow for the brittle grains to swell. Now some people may disagree with this. I read an article this summer by Martha Rose Shulman in the New York Times in which she writes that she cannot differentiate between soaked and unsoaked Basmati. I tried this experiment in my kitchen and here are the visual results: soaked on left; unsoaked on right.
- You will note that the grains which have been soaked are more elongated and separated. The unsoaked grains took 24 minutes to parboil, whereas the soaked grains took 14 minutes. The texture of the unsoaked grains was a bit chewy and elastic. Please do soak your Basmati rice for at least 30 minutes to get the best possible outcome.
- Rice should be parboiled till al dente. To test, gently squeeze a rice grain between your thumb and forefinger to see if the rice breaks into 2 or 3 pieces.
- Once al dente, swift action is required. (This is where it can all go horribly wrong, as it did for me back in the day.) Remove the pot from the flame and transfer the rice in a sieve to drain the boiling water. Do not wash the rice with cold water.
- Gently, but quickly, transfer the rice back into the pot, cover with a tea towel before placing the lid, to prevent the steam from escaping (I have seen my mother place a brick on top of the pot). Let the rice cook in its own steam for the requisite time over the lowest flame possible (a tava; a griddle made of cast iron could also be placed between the burner and the pot).
- For those of you using an electric stove: since it takes sufficient time for a burner to go from a high to low heat level, it would be advisable to transfer the parboiled Basmati to another burner on low heat, to avoid the rice from scorching.
- When decanting the Basmati, do so very carefully, in our home we use a teacup saucer.
Where I usually ended up going wrong was in determining how al dente the grain should be. Often I misjudged its readiness and the rice remained raw. Or, it would be too soft and I would end up with a porridge-like dish. Either way, it was binned. I hope these tips are helpful- I would love to hear about your experiences with preparing Basmati in your homes.
Favourite brands of Basmati: Tilda and Daawat.
Prep time: 30
Active time: 20
*1 cup Basmati rice
*water for soaking and par-boiling
* Soak the Basmati for 30 minutes minimum. I usually soak it for at least 1 hour.
* Boil 6-8 cups of water, when it comes to a rolling boil, add the Basmati.
* Let it cook for 13-15 minutes.
* To test if it’s ready for steaming, take a grain and if it breaks between your finger and thumb, remove from the flame (cooking times vary for certain types of rice, be sure to check the rice every few minutes so it doesn’t overcook).
* Drain the water well (otherwise the excess water will overcook and soften the rice), add the rice back and place the pot on the burner on the lowest heat possible. Place a tea towel or paper towel between the lid and the pot to prevent the steam from escaping.
* Turn the heat off after 5 minutes. The rice will continue to cook in its own steam.
* Allow the Basmati to rest for at least another 15 minutes, as the grains are very fragile.
* Decant with a wide-rimmed spoon, we use a teacup saucer.