Basmati rice is a fragrant, long grain rice that features prominently in Indian, Pakistani, and Middle Eastern cuisine. It can be either white or brown, but both typically have a uniform color and consistency before and after cooking. The rice can be eaten on its own or used as a base for a number of different savory and sweet dishes. It is the central ingredient in rice pudding, for instance, which is typically served as a dessert, but is equally essential to a range of meat dishes, stews, and vegetable presentations.
Flavor and Basic Characteristics
The word “basmati” means “the fragrant one” in Sanskrit, one of the most widely-spoken languages in India, owing in large part to the rice’s aromatic nature. Each rice grain contains high concentrations of essential oils that, when boiled, release a pleasing smell that also usually translates into a complex flavor. No extra effort is required to get the rice to smell and taste this way — just boiling it in plain water is usually all that it takes.
Another distinguishing characteristic is the rice’s texture and shape. The grains are long and thin, typically measuring between 0.25 and 0.5 inches (about 0.6 to 1.3 cm) when fully cooked. They do not usually stick together very much and hold their shape quite well.
Basmati rice is the predominant type of rice used in Indian cooking, and is also popular throughout Pakistan, parts of the Middle East, and in some Southeast Asian cuisines, particularly in Thailand and Malaysia. The rice is usually prepared as a sort of “base” for many different types of foods. Curries and fragrant sauces are usually served over it, for example, as are most meat stews. Placing meat or vegetable cutlets on a bed of rice is also common.
This sort of rice is frequently served as a side dish as well. Many Indian cooks will prepare a pot of rice as a standard part of every meal and will simply set it on the table for guests and family members to help themselves to. Many Indian and South Asian restaurants take part in this practice, too, often serving it as a sort of unspoken addition to most every item on the menu. Some of the only exceptions are noodle dishes or entrees with other predominant starches.
Different Types and Categories
Most basmati rice can be quickly categorized as either “white” or “brown” depending on its initial appearance. Most of the difference here has to do with processing, as all rice begins as brown. The grains grow enclosed in a natural fiber sheath made of bran that gives them a tan color and also a sort of nutty flavor.
Milling the rice will remove this sheath to reveal a white kernel. White basmati rice, like all types of white rice, is more processed and refined than its brown counterparts, and it also contains fewer nutrients. Removing the tougher outer layer often makes the grains more aromatic, however, which many cooks and customers find appealing.
Within the “brown” and “white” categories there are also further distinctions based on growing region and specific plant breed. Most of the rice designed for export is simply labeled “basmati,” but a more careful examination of different choices can reveal some subtle differences. Rice from the mountainous northern parts of India is often slightly different from that cultivated in the flatter rice paddies of the south, for instance, and grains from Pakistan are often slightly shorter and can have a more distinctive aroma and fragrance.
All types of rice are considered to be starches, but basmati tends to rank relatively low when it comes to natural sugar content. This means that it can take longer for the body to process than varieties with simpler carbohydrate structures, and it carries a relatively low glycemic index rating as a result. The “glycemic index” is a numeric scale used by nutritionists and those in the medical profession to measure how readily certain carbohydrates are broken down and absorbed into the bloodstream. The relatively low value given to basmati rice makes it attractive to diabetics and others who may be sensitive to blood sugar spikes.
Both brown and white varieties typically contain trace amounts of many vitamins and minerals, notably iron and selenium. Brown grains have the additional benefit of fiber and some protein as a result of their outer bran layer. Both are very low in fat and calories.
Due in part to its popularity around the world and the limited area of its natural growing habitat, basmati rice is sometimes the subject of genetic engineering or genetic modification. These are chemical processes in which genetic plant material is artificially engineered to express certain characteristics. Sometimes, the goal is to create disease or pesticide-resistant grains; other times, the objective is a plant that can grow in poor soil conditions or at extreme temperatures. Some governments have strict rules about how genetically modified foods like rice can be labeled and sold, but others do not. This has led to some concerns about how “authentic” or “natural” some rice products really are.
There can also be confusion when it comes to what sort of rice can qualify as “basmati.” Some countries, notably Great Britain, have certification guidelines that manufacturers must adhere to in order to use the basmati name. Most of the time, this is done to prevent companies from augmenting their rice with inferior grains or grains that lack the aromatic and glycemic qualities of those grown in the traditional regions.
Manufacturers that are not subject to labeling guidelines have occasionally been found to have sold blends of rice that may only contain some basmati grains as “pure basmati.” It can be difficult for consumers to tell the difference, at least from external packaging. Buyers who are skeptical are usually wise to purchase products that come in clear bags, where quality can at least be assessed by basic look and feel.