Asian Geographic, July 2010
“Basmati,” says Rajat Beg, “is the champagne of rice.”
As an executive of India’s REI Agro, one of the world’s major basmati producers, you might say he’s biased. But he has a point. Basmati – the word means “the fragrant one” in Sanskrit – isn’t just a source of sustenance: its rarity, and the sheer difficulty of producing it, has made it a status symbol in its own right. In class-conscious India and elsewhere, if you serve basmati rice, you’re making a statement.
Basmati’s prestige stems from the painstaking process involved in growing it. Everything from the temperature to the soil, the humidity, the timing and the storage of the rice is vital. It grows in only two countries in the world, Pakistan and India; and within India, which accounts for three quarters of the global harvest, it only grows in four provinces and constitutes barely 2% of the Indian national rice crop.
So what do you need to grow basmati? It’s a highly specific checklist. Basmati needs the rich alluvial soil that comes down in the snow-melt from the Himalayas, which is why it only grows in the foothill states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttranchal and a chunk of Uttar Pradesh. Those snow-fed waters are important too, and there needs to be a median temperature of 28 to 33 degrees Celsius and a minimum humidity of 60%. Even the hours of daylight and the gentle winds there are crucial. It’s a very picky breed of rice.
On top of that, the timing of sowing is important. Top growers sow in the nursery in the first week of June, then grow in the kharif season – through July and August, during India and Pakistan’s south-west monsoon season – and harvest from September to December. Everything about this timing matters: it smells better when it ripens in cool weather.
Next, basmati must be matured for 18 to 24 months before it is sold. It is dried, processed and carefully stored. If you buy a packet of top-grade basmati from a store today, it was probably harvested at the end of 2007 at the latest. “Basmati is like wine,” Beg says. “The fragrance and cooking qualities are enhanced with ageing.” Understanding why gets you into some complex science: as moisture reduces in the rice during storage, a cocktail of about 100 chemical compounds is formed, and that’s what makes the rice sweet with a unique nutty aroma.
This convoluted process makes it much more expensive. Whereas mainstream rice goes for around 20 rupees per kilo in India, premium basmati can be five times more than that. So why buy it? Partly, it tastes good: it’s aromatic, it doesn’t stick, and since it loses moisture when stored, it cooks better than normal rice. But it’s more than that. The rarity creates exclusivity, and with it, prestige. “Any family function or get-together in India is incomplete without the basmati recipe,” Beg says. As one producer slogan in India goes: “Basmati is no product. It is a status symbol. It doesn’t just feed; it elevates.”
And, while this social side certainly matters in India, it is still more potent elsewhere. About 60% of the Indian basmati crop – representing almost half the global total – is exported, and of that, almost half goes to Saudi Arabia, and plenty more to the other big Gulf states: United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Yemen. This is where the prestige of basmati is most powerful: the sense that what you eat, and what you serve, says something about you and your wealth.
It’s a prestige Indians have been prepared to go to court for: when a Texan company won a US patent on basmati rice lines and grains in 1997, the furore went all the way to the top and caused a diplomatic standoff between the Indian and US governments. India didn’t follow through on a threat to take it to the World Trade Organization – the US company withdrew most of its patent claims instead – but to this day the WTO only allows certain varieties of rice grown in India and Pakistan to be labelled as basmati.
Indian scientists have developed molecular market systems – rice detectives, you might say – in order to authenticate traditional or evolved basmati from other forms of rice, so important is it to be sure that only the best crop is sold under the name. Exporters get a “purity certificate”. It’s quite something when your rice has to be fingerprinted: welcome to the exclusivity of basmati.