Ask Vir Ask Vir

Basmati is a complicated business

It is the only kind of rice that is a household name all over India.

Even people who don’t eat much Basmati rice (in the South, for instance) know what it is. And all over the world, they praise Basmati for its fragrance (which is what the name Basmati refers to) and for its long grains, which remain separate and distinct when cooked.


Over the last two decades or so, Basmati has come to be regarded as the ultimate pulao or biryani rice. You can’t really make a North Indian biryani without Basmati and the best pulaos are usually made with Basmati.


   The Biryani connection has helped spread the fame of Basmati. As Biryani has become one of India’s most popular dishes, the demand for Basmati has multiplied. In Tamilnadu, where there are many delicious local biryanis, all made with regional rice varieties, there is now a shift in such cities in Chennai to biryanis made with long-grain Basmati. In Andhra, where the local pulaos (often called biryanis) were made with rice from the region, Basmati (used earlier only for Hyderabadi biryani) has begun to replace regional short grain rice as the preferred pulao rice.


   So firmly entrenched is the idea of Basmati as India’s showpiece rice that we fought international battles to protect our Basmati heritage when companies all over the world started growing their own Basmati. There was Basmati from Texas, for example and India feared, quite justifiably, that not only would we lose our claim to Basmati but that the character of the rice itself would be corrupted by the new global variations.


   India waged a battle to obtain the coveted GI status for Basmati. GI status is conferred by the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) which rules on whether countries can claim exclusive rights to a product. Just as France is the only country allowed to make Champagne (all other sparkling wine cannot be called Champagne) and only Italy can make Parmigiano cheese so only India and Pakistan have right to call their rice Basmati. (GI stands for Geographical Indication, by the way.)


   I remember when India fought this battle because many of us who wrote about food were asked by the eminent lawyer J Sagar, who spearheaded India’s legal strategy, to give affidavits about the uniqueness of our Basmati. And when Basmati was awarded GI status, all of us celebrated.


   Two things have always intrigued me about Basmati, especially during its rise to even greater fame as the ultimate biryani rice. We were brought up to value Basmati for its fragrance. If you cook good quality basmati rice, you will enjoy the aroma. But once you turn it into a biryani by adding spices, that original fragrance is lost in the many aromas that waft up from the pot because of the spicing. In Awadhi cuisine, there is a tradition of adding some extra aromatics (kewda and saffron, for instance) in a biryani, which further obscures the Basmati aroma.


   So, I have always wondered: are we doing Basmati an injustice by treating it only as a Biryani rice?


  A second question was quickly answered once I became obsessed with rice and began researching the subject. Why, I wondered, did rice described as Basmati vary so much in quality: in size, in flavour and indeed in aroma?


   The reason is that while Basmati is a distinct breed (with its own DNA), it is also a family of many entirely distinct varieties.


   Though the term is often thrown around, there is no such thing as one traditional Basmati. Even a century ago, there were many varieties of Basmati. In some of them, the rice grains were not as long as today’s Basmati. The distinctive factors were the flavour and aroma.


"I spoke to farmers in the Bari region near Bhopal last week and they all insisted that they had been cultivating Basmati (they called it ‘Sugandhit’) for generations."

  In any case, those ancient varieties of Basmati are hardly sold today. They were low yielding crops, susceptible to disease and rarely gave farmers a good return.


   The current Basmati boom is almost entirely due to the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in Delhi, referred to by the trade as the ‘Pusa Institute’ after its location. Over the last several years, scientists at Pusa have successfully bred new strains of Basmati that have higher yields, are easier to grow and even have longer grains.


   Almost all of the Basmati we eat today has its origins in the labs at Pusa. The Institute’s greatest achievement may be a variety called 1121, which is now the dominant Basmati strain. It has very long grains and has increased farmers‘ yields dramatically. As a consequence 1121 rice is much cheaper in the market than Basmati used to be. Though it was only released for commercial cultivation in this century it is what most of us are served when we ask for Basmati at restaurants. It does not, however, have much fragrance but as we have seen, most biryanis have so many added aromas anyway that nobody even notices.


   So Basmati is a complicated business and while the GI tag has helped India globally, it has created another set of problems within the country. When we applied for GI registration, we described Basmati as a rice grown in the ‘Indo-Gangetic’ plain which sounded good but may not have been strictly accurate. We named seven states as growers of Basmati and effectively, said that any Basmati from elsewhere in India was not real Basmati.


   This is problematic because good quality Basmati has always been grown outside of these seven states. In Pakistan, for instance, the GI region includes regions that are not in the Indo-Gangetic plain. Nor is there any ancient Basmati tradition in every one of the seven Indian states listed in the GI classification. Rice requires lots of water to flourish and Punjab and Haryana only got more water after the building of the Bhakra-Nangal dam in the late 1950s. There was no real rice-growing (or eating) tradition in Punjab before that and cultivation started in earnest only in the 1960s. Punjab now specialises in low-cost, high-yield varieties developed by Pusa.


   It is also not clear that all of the areas designated under the GI classification are actually part of the Indo-Gangetic plain.


   The major loser in all this is Madhya Pradesh. State government officials in Bhopal say that the region has a long Basmati tradition dating back to over a century and furnish old records from 1908 which clearly refer to Basmati cultivation.


   I spoke to farmers in the Bari region near Bhopal last week and they all insisted that they had been cultivating Basmati (they called it ‘Sugandhit’) for generations.


   The Basmati they now grow is aromatic (much more than Pusa 1121) long-grained and probably of better quality than much of the rice coming out of say, Haryana or Punjab. When they were excluded from the GI classification, they went to Court and a see-saw legal battle ensued.


   The current status is that they are allowed to call their rice ‘Basmati’ (which it clearly is) nearly everywhere, pending a final resolution of the legal dispute. But they can’t call it ‘Basmati’ in the European market because the Indian government has told the EU that only rice from the seven states mentioned in the GI application is Basmati. This damages their export prospects and there is much anger among the farmers and within the local trade.


   Why, they ask, can’t the government tell the EU that the situation is under review and that MP is allowed to call its rice Basmati in India? Somewhat predictably they blame it on the stranglehold of the big rice companies which deal in rice from the North and do not want competition from Madhya Pradesh.


   How this plays out is anyone’s guess. An injustice has clearly been done to Madhya Pradesh’s farmers and the Centre can easily rectify it. It would be a shame not to clarify the issue because the excellence of Basmati is a shared heritage for India and now that we have won the global battle we should not lose ourselves in internal squabbles.



Posted On: 10 Mar 2023 04:00 PM
Your email id will not be published.
Security code:
Captcha Enter the code shown above:
Your email id will not be published.
Friend's Name:
Friend's E-mail:
Your email id will not be published.
The Message text:
This email was created by [your name] who thought you would be interested in the following Article:

A Vir Sanghvi Article Information

The Vir Sanghvi also contains hundreds of articles.

Additional Text:
Security code:
Captcha Enter the code shown above:

CommentsOther Articles

See All

Ask VirRead all

Connect with Virtwitter

@virsanghvi on
Vir Sanghvi