Basmati: The Jewel in the Crown

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.
  • basmati: soaked vs. unsoaked

  • 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.

Serves 2

Prep time: 30

Active time: 20

Ingredients:

*1 cup Basmati rice

*water for soaking and par-boiling

Preparation:

* 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.

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Comments

  1. smartie999 says:

    I am looking forward to being called ‘A Real Cook’! My Basmati for tomorrow has just been put to soak. Clever girl, you have even managed to make cooking rice seem interesting.

  2. I have wasted many cups of rice because they turned out either too hard or too soft, which is a shame because I cannot live without rice. I also always end up with a thick layer of almost burned rice stuck to the bottom of the pot – I didn’t think of transferring it to another burner. Will try it your way tonight!

  3. any tricks for keeping the rice nice and separate if you don’t want to throw the water out?

  4. Thanks all, so much for visiting on the first day and for the lovely comments and words of encouragement.

    @jtm If you don’t want to discard the water and therefore preserve all the rice’s nutrients, I would use a 2:3 ratio of rice:boiling water. Add rice in a pot of boiling water, let rice whirl around in it for 2 minutes, then immediately change the flame to low (or transfer to another burner if using an electric stove), cover with a tea towel and the lid, and let it cook for 15 minutes. I will double check the cooking time, just to be sure.

  5. Thanks so much for posting this! I feel like I can cook most dishes I try pretty well. But rice. Oh, rice. Somehow, I always, ALWAYS mess it up.

  6. Mehreen Tanvir says:

    Bless you to spell the process out. As a Kashmiri it was considered that making perfect basmati chawal would be in my genes. But they seemed to have skipped a generation and I struggle… to the point of being afraid of making rice. but this was greatly helpful.

    Happy Blogging…

  7. @small kitch cara Thank you for visiting- I enjoy your blog a lot, too. See you on @food52.

    @Mehreen Thank you so much. All you have to do is create a mess a few (many, many) times, as I used to, and it’ll come to you like magic. That Kashmiri gene will kick in.

  8. Your comparison between soaked and un-soaked basmati rice is interesting and the photograph certainly proves the point.

    I have tried cooking rice on the stove top, with varying results. I have learned to abstain from the peculiarly English habit of stirring the rice as it cooks, hence beating the grains to a pulp. I now tend to avoid porridge altogether by relying on my trusty microwave steamer.

    When the rice is almost perfect, the steam finishes off the process without the need for human intervention and produces lovely, fluffy grains of aromatic delight with the greatest of ease. Many of my Pakistani colleagues also use this method with great success, reassuring me that I have finally got it right…

    • @Polly Thank you for your comments and for sharing your experience. Steaming Basmati in the microwave must produce a perfectly fluffly and light grain. I would try your method, except we have decided not to keep a microwave in our home. It’s something I learnt from the Italians when living in Rome. But for those who do use the microwave, I hope they try it your way.

  9. Shayma,
    Love this website and it makes cooking so interesting.Your descriptions are great and makes me want to go to lahore and eat all the delicious food!Keeo up the good work!

  10. @Ashoo Apa Thank you so much for visiting the site. Hope to see you soon. Love, s.

  11. I never knew about the soaking but I’m keen to try this method of cooking basmati next time! I usually just chuck it into my rice cooker!

  12. @Su-Lin Many thanks for visiting my site. Please do let me know if you noticed a difference between the soaked and unsoaked version.

  13. Wonderful post! Thank you!

  14. @Maninas Thank you, let me know how you get on with it.

  15. Lovely post and I great blog !

    Was taught the absorbtion method by a Persian friend using 1.5 times quantity stock to rice after first briefly sauteing the rice in either butter or oil depending what I having with it. Always seems to work as long as it is gently simmered on low heat for 18 -20 mins.

    I was amazed to find out that the biggest consumer of Basmati Rice in the World is The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

    Dino

  16. @Gastro1 Dino, how lovely to see you here. Thanks for the kind words. You are right, the 1:1.5 ratio produces a light, fluffy product. Some people prefer a softer version and double it up (I, like you, prefer the former). Re the Saudis, am as surprised as you. They certainly do like their expensive cars, homes, and rice, don’t they?

  17. I love how you took great care in explaining how high-maintenance Basmati is! Also I like that you confronted a famous journalist from the NY Times who did not know what she was talking about apparently. I love Basmati and consider it the finest rice in the world.

  18. @tasteofbeirut Thanks so much for visiting. It is so difficult to tell someone how to prepare rice- my mother told me for years, but I had to dive in and create disasters for a while before it came out right. It varies so much from stove to stove and rice brand to rice brand.

  19. Oh my goodness – I tried this today and the rice turned out almost perfect! I think I may have parboiled it a tad too long, but the texture was better than anything I’ve tried before. Thanks!

    • @Kate Very kind of you to have written to me about how it turned out for you. Every rice brand/hybrid/variety is different with regards to cooking time; no harm in parboiling it for too long :) All best wishes, s

  20. Oh Shayma! I love you for this. Really.

    I never used to be able to cook Basmati perfectly until I came across this post of yours. In the past, I’ve cooked other kinds of rice using the pressure cooker. But I was totally lost when I had to cook Basmati on the stove-top; the rice used to be either sticky or hard to bite. It was like tossing a coin; I couldn’t predict if it would cook properly or not. The first time I tried your method, I was so happy that I finally knew how to cook this elegant grain. Its been 3 months since then and I’m still figuring out when to drain the rice after cooking, but yeah, sometimes it does turn out absolutely perfect and that itself is reason for celebration. One important thing I learned from you is to never cook Basmati without soaking.

    Thank you!

    • @Joyce Thank you so much for your feedback; it means a lot to me as a food blogger. Basmati rice is tricky to prepare- it depends on a myriad of things- how thick the bottom of your pot is, whether you are cooking over a gas or electric flame, the brand of rice, the altitude, the list goes on…I hope you can perfect the method to your liking. As I had mentioned in my post, it took me a very long time :) Thank you, once again. x s

  21. Hi, the directions are very clear and well written, but could you please specify the size of the sauce pan in which it should be cooked? Thank You

    • Hi Shireen, Approximately a 5-quart pot. Basically, a pot with a wide base and tall body. Thsnk you for your kind words.

  22. I tried to cook basmati rice but i didn’t cook it so tasty therefore i feel shamed on myself after all i liked to eat very much. Thereafter i purchased from top brand Rice manufacturers but i failed to cook tasty again.

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