White Basmati rice (Tilda or Badshah) is the best rice to use if you want separate, fluffy grains, and a wonderful slightly nutty flavour. Basmati rice is much taller than other rices, and this contributes to the better flavour, but it does make the plant liable to wind damage. It also smells wonderful (a lot of the pleasure of the taste comes from the anticipation conjured up by the lovely woody fragrance). ‘Basmati’ in Hindi, means ‘queen of fragrance’.
The source of its flavour is a chemical called 2-acetyl-1-pyrroline (AP2) – and Basmati has about twelve times more of this chemical than ordinary rice. Additional flavour comes from the length of time it is matured, as rice with a lower moisture content cooks better. The best types of basmati rice are aged for several years before they are milled and sold.
Basmati rice has long, thin pointed grains and can vary in colour from ivory to a rich, dark brown. Some of the best (Dehraduni) comes from the area where it was first cultivated, at the base of the Indian Himalayas.
It’s also very healthy – it’s gluten free, low in fat, low in salt, contains no cholesterol, and also has all eight essential amino acids. Not only that. Arsenic is found in higher levels in rice than in most other plants. Ingested regularly, it seems it can over time, raise the risk of cancer and heart disease. The EU’s current proposal is that the maximum saleable food should contain no more than 200 parts per billion (ppb) for adults and 100 ppb for children and babies. Kellogg’s Rise Krispies for example contains 188 ppb, and (sadly, as it has an interesting nutty taste and texture) Camargue red rice from France has 310 ppb. However, Basmati from India has just 44 ppb.
Heston Blumenthal, in his book In search of total perfection, relates that he got the idea for a finishing touch to his perfect risotto from a friend, the food scientist Harold McGee. “Harold had come across research that had discovered high levels of 2AP in the padanus leaf, or screwpine, a herb used as a flavouring in Asian cooking”. Blumenthal develops a sauce made of warmed crème fraîche whipped with shredded pandan leaf. Amazingly you can find fresh pandan leaf on Amazon if you fancy experimenting with this concept.
To find out how to cook Basmati rice go here.