Rice provides one-fifth of the calories consumed in the world today. Or slightly more if you eat at the Wong Kei restaurant in London’s Soho, where servings are particularly generous.
A long time ago, before even the Sex Pistols were a glint in someone’s eye, I was taught to cook “Indian” vegetarian food by a Pakistani chef called Mr Murzer. He was a friendly man from a family of great chefs and a strict teacher. One of his many rules was that I must only ever cook with genuine basmati rice. Grown in the Punjab region of India and Pakistan, its grains are long and slender and the flavours and aromas it releases when correctly cooked are unmistakable. The name “basmati” comes from a mixture of the Hindi and Sanskrit words for “fragrance” and “perfume”.
I have not seen Mr Murzer for over thirty years and, as he must have been in his mid-to late-fifties back then, I assume he’ll be dead by now, or at the very least, incapable of boxing my ears as hard as he used to whenever I made stupid mistakes, such as not tempering my spices properly or letting the yoghurt curdle. On that understanding, I can reveal that in the subsequent years I have been known to occasionally summon up the odd risotto with arborio or carnaroli rice, but generally speaking it’s been basmati all the way for me.
The first thing to be sure of is that the rice you buy is really basmati. The high cost of producing and ageing genuine basmati grains makes it lucrative for unscrupulous fellows to repackage any old long grain rubbish as the “prince of rices”. Those garish packets you sometimes find in Indian supermarkets at half the price of everything else is unlikely to be the genuine article. Although this is not something I ever apply to other products, the only sure way your rice is really basmati is to buy a recognised brand, such as Tilda, Veetee or TRS.
Basmati rice comes in two forms – white and brown– and each requires a simple but entirely different cooking process. In both cases you will need a fairly small pan with a tight-fitting lid. You’ll find that anally-retentive types will almost certainly employ a special rice pan. Mine holds two pints and comes with two small metal handles instead of a single long plastic one. This is so you can stick it in the oven without melting the handle and stinking out the neighbourhood.
White basmati is milled an polished, and and is what is served as “plain boiled rice” in most Indian restaurants. You’ll need a handy measure. I use a plastic half-pint beaker and know that dry rice almost up to the top will provide four generous portions. You simply measure out the amount of dry rice you need, wash it in a sieve under running water to get rid of all the powered starch, then add it to the rice pan together with one-and-a-half times the amount (by volume) of fresh, cold water. Bring to the boil, add a pinch of salt, stir quickly, slam on the lid and turn down the heat to its lowest.
After exactly eight minutes, remove your pan from the heat and leave to stand. The longer you leave it, the fluffier the rice will be. Try and manage fifteen minutes; if it’s going to be more, stick your unopened pan inside a very low oven. Do not be tempted to take off the lid before you are ready to serve. In Indian restaurants, they make the rice at lunchtime in huge pans (one for plain; another with food colourings, oil and spices for pillau rice), leaving it in a barely warm oven all afternoon to let the grains separate and the flavours intensify.
Brown rice contains the whole grain and needs 25 minutes to cook. You don’t have to wash it, but you can if you like. Simply plonk a cupful of rice and enough boiling water to cover it plus a centimetre or so, into the same pan and boil rapidly for fifteen minutes. During that time you may have to filter off the “scum” (that’s the dark brown powered starch) or top up with hot water from the kettle, as needed. At the end of fifteen minutes you need to set your timer for another ten. You’ll ideally have water a tiny way above the grains, if not, add more from the kettle or boil rapidly until what’s in there has evaporated to the correct level. Add a pinch of salt, stir once and plonk on the lid, simmering on the lowest heat for whatever remains of the ten minutes. Leave to stand for at least ten minutes.
After a while, the amounts of water, rice and salt you use will become second nature and you’ll rarely have to do anything other than plonk on the lid and turn down the heat. At the end of your resting period you will have perfect Basmati rice.
If not, Mr Murzer will come and box your ears.