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How does Basmati get its fragrance?

When you write an article, you never quite know which bit readers will pick up on.

Last weekend, I wrote a Rude Food column on basmati rice. I explained how basmati was a distinctive kind of rice, recognisable by its DNA, but it had various strains, some of which differed markedly from each other.


Further, I added, most of the basmati we now eat comes from strains created by the Indian Agricultural Institute in Pusa, Delhi, which has worked tirelessly to develop strains of basmati that offer farmers a better yield.


   This was all very well. But the part of the column that seems to have resonated more with readers had to do with the fading fragrance of basmati. Once upon a time, I wrote, basmati was prized for its aroma and its flavour. Now, customers only look for the length of the grain.


   I had been to Madhya Pradesh, I wrote, and spoken to farmers there who had cultivated ‘sugandhit rice’ for years, and who grew a rice that was full of aroma and had more flavour than most of the basmati in the market. Sadly, these farmers felt they had been discriminated against by the government which ruled that basmati could only come from seven states and Madhya Pradesh was not one of them.


   The Madhya Pradesh government had fought this decision in court with the consequence that currently, their farmers can call their rice basmati everywhere except in Europe where the European Union goes by the Indian government’s original submission that there was no basmati in Madhya Pradesh.


   I thought the story of the MP farmers was a nice little David vs. Goliath tale to end the column with. Instead, it seems to have become the bit which resonated most with readers. Famous chefs called to ask if they could talk to the farmers. Others said that they wanted to try Madhya Pradesh Basmati. And the one question everyone asked was: how does Basmati get its fragrance and why does the basmati we buy in the shops have so little perfume?


   The answer is both simple and complicated. The most popular strain of basmati (called Pusa 1121) is a good-looking, long-grained variety which has increased farmers’ yields. In the process, alas, it has lost much of the characteristic basmati aroma.


   The more difficult part of the question is: Why does basmati have an aroma, anyway? That’s not easy to answer because it involves science, which was never my subject. But here goes, anyway.


   All rice contains a molecule called acetyl pyrroline. Harold McGee, the great food scientist, tells us that while this molecule occurs naturally in rice it can also be created by heat. McGee says that while all rice does contain this fragrance it only has barely detectable traces that are often masked by generic grain aldehydes.


   However, both Thai jasmine and Indian basmati have (or had) larger quantities of acetyl pyrroline which is why they were known for their fragrance. But they are not the only sources of this molecular aroma. If you make popcorn, the heat will create the same fragrance. (Why don’t we know this intuitively? Well, because for us, the smell of popcorn is the aroma of salted butter. Few of us smell unflavoured popcorn right after it is made.) And acetyl pyrroline occurs naturally in such plants as the pandan.


 "It is a shame because while the Thais brag about the aroma of their jasmine rice all over the world, we have given up the battle, treating basmati as just a long-grained variety."

   Unfortunately, the creation of new strains has led to the diminution of this molecule in basmati which is why today’s versions have less aroma and therefore, less flavour.


   The Thais try and add more acetyl pyrroline to their Jasmine rice by cooking it with pandan leaves. (These are often removed before serving.) In Thailand, they recognise that the acctyl pyrroline aroma will fade with time so they like eating Jasmine rice soon after it has been harvested. McGee says that the best way to preserve the aroma is to keep the rice in a cool place. As will be obvious, we don’t necessarily eat our basmati right after it is harvested and far from keeping it in a cool place, we tend to leave it lying around in hot spaces.


   Like the Thais, we have worked out that pandan has an aroma similar to fresh basmati and we use pandan too. Except that while the Thais use the leaves of the pandan plant, we use kewra, an extract from the pandan flower which I personally am not particularly fond of.


   The kewra you get these days is not particularly subtle and chefs ladle it on their biryanis in a way that destroys what little aroma the rice originally had in the first place.


   It is a shame because while the Thais brag about the aroma of their jasmine rice all over the world, we have given up the battle, treating basmati as just a long-grained variety. And yet, the world’s greatest chefs marvel at the wonderful fragrance of basmati. Heston Blumenthal told me how, for many years, he was so fascinated by the fragrance of basmati that it became an obsession for him.


   Heston was researching the making of risotto and tried various kinds of Italian rice. He was looking for plump starchy rice grains that would keep their shape when cooked. But even as he perfected his recipe, he realised something was missing: the unmistakable aroma of basmati which, for him, was the true smell of rice.


   Heston had a solution. All risotto is cooked with stock. So, thought Blumenthal, supposing he added a basmati flavour to the stock? That would elevate the risotto with the unique fragrance of basmati.


   After much experimentation, he came up with his recipe for a basmati and chicken stock. He made chicken stock as normal in a pressure cooker (the recipe would work with a light vegetable stock too). He added carrot, leek, onion, garlic and peppercorns and cooked this again in the pressure cooker with the stock for 30 minutes. He put off the gas, left the enriched stock alone for a bit before sieving it to get rid of the vegetables.


   He then added 100 grams of basmati to the stock and let it simmer for 20 minutes. By the time he removed the rice the stock had taken on the flavour and aroma of basmati.


   Like all of Heston’s recipes it is foolproof and gives you an excellent risotto with the very un-Italian fragrance of basmati. I reckon Indian chefs should use it for their pulaos to make up for the feeble aroma of Pusa 1121.


   But, of course, they won’t. Because we are so used to packing our biryanis and pulaos with masalas, we are slowly forgetting what basmati should smell like anyway. We just look for the long grains.


   So that’s why thoughtful chefs were excited when I wrote about the fragrance of the sugandhit basmati I had found in Madhya Pradesh. And though my intention had not been to focus on the injustice done to the farmers of Madhya Pradesh, it was the aroma of their rice that won readers over.


   As much as I appreciate how the new strains have helped farmers I still think it would be a shame if we let the scent of basmati vanish from our rice.



Posted On: 13 Mar 2023 06:25 PM
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