If you think rice is a benign commodity purchase and that there is no difference between brands of the same type, don't express that view to rice growers. As with any other ingredient, there are differing quality values and a range of tricks, cheats and persuasive marketing methods, and nowhere are these more widespread than in the world of basmati rice.
It is not just an issue of quality of grain with basmati. Adulteration of basmati and blending with cheaper and inferior rice varieties is widespread, particularly in the own-label and no-label market, where the packer needs to drive down the cost to meet a price point. This adulteration not only adds false grains but cuts out the vital ageing process, in which good basmati is stored for at least six months to develop its delicate flavour and help prevent stickiness.
The extent of this scam has been exposed by a team from Nottingham University who examined 41 brands and packs of so-called basmati rice, using DNA fingerprinting to identify true basmati. Of the 41 samples examined, 19 were found to have been adulterated.
The most obvious evidence of this sneaky blending is that basmati cooking recipes based on absorption may not work properly, producing rice grains which are either too dry or have gone soggy because the different rice types need slightly different cooking times. Sogginess can also come through poor quality control, with broken grains releasing too much starch and causing stickiness.
Not surprisingly, the response from the big basmati brands is that the easiest way to ensure consistency and pack fidelity is to stay with their products, mostly sourced from the Punjab region of Pakistan, regarded as the home of the finest basmati. However, northern India and Pakistan are not the only places in the world where basmati-type rice is grown - biopiracyis at work.
To be truly called basmati, the rice should come from India or Pakistan. However, basmati variants are now being grown in southern Europe, and increasingly in the USA, where genetic engineering has crossed basmati with a native US variety. This forms a grain which the US growers say mirrors basmati without the unique climatic mix found in Pakistan. Of course, Pakistani growers say it is nothing like proper basmati. Keep your eyes peeled for names such as Texmati and Jasmati if you want to try non-subcontinent basmati.
Parboiled or easy-cook rice
This is not so much a variety of rice as a method of processing. It is used extensively by chefs (but almost never in Asian restaurants) because of the way it resists going to mush or drying out when held on a servery.
This happens because the raw rice grains are pressure-steamed in the first stage of processing. This slightly hydrates the grain and seals in the starch, making it far less likely to leech out - which is what causes cooked rice to go sticky and mushy when held warm.
After steaming, the rice is air-dried, shelled to remove the husk, milled to remove the bran, checked for impurities and broken grains, then bagged.
One of the world's leading processors of parboiled rice is Uncle Ben's, whose food service product development manager, Vince Kearney, says that while the product is called easy-cook, it is not foolproof.
As with other types of rice, there are consistent, quality products in the market and cheap and unreliable commodity versions. Kearney says that the sign of poor quality to watch for is the rice going uncharacteristically sticky, which can be caused by the release of starch from broken grains, or through there being a mixture of grain sizes in which the small grains are overcooking and dissolving.
Parboiled rice is, as its alternative name implies, easy to cook, but it can be overcooked, through either neglect or a wilful attempt to bulk up the rice to make it go further, which destroys texture and taste. Kearney says that there are two basic methods for cooking easy-cook rice.
If it is being used as an accompaniment to a dish such as chilli con carne, then loose simmering at a ratio of five or six parts water to one part rice gives the best finished product. Cook time is about 14 to 15 minutes, and never more than 20 minutes. Sampling a grain towards the end of the cooking time to feel for the slight bite will indicate the point at which the rice needs draining.
The total water absorption method, using the standard 2-1 water-rice technique, is the recommended cooking method if the rice is integral to a dish and needs to absorb flavours, as in Tex-Mex or a pilau.
In theory, parboiling to produce a non-sticky cooked grain that will hold up during service can be applied to most forms of rice, and parboiled basmati rice is increasingly available.
The most interesting development for UK chefs in the parboiled sector for many years has been the introduction by Uncle Ben's of parboiled risotto rice, which combats the chef's constant nightmare of how to cook and hold bulk quantities of risotto without it ending up like a bucket of paste. It is not through any lack of will or forethought among chefs that risotto so seldom appears in banqueting, pub and staff restaurant usages; rather, it is that risotto rice refuses to be kept waiting. Like fish cookery, risottos can live or die just minutes either side of the optimum cooking point.
What causes the gluey risotto problem is the release of starch from the rice grains which, combined with added liquids, creates the wonderful emulsion characteristic of a classic risotto. By cooking one serving individually, it is possible to halt the cooking and the starch-release process at exactly the right moment.
However, short cuts are available. It is possible to cook risotto rice, drain and chill it, then combine it, close to service, with a sharply flavoured sauce to finish. But this comes close to being just as involved as cooking the risotto from scratch.
The introduction of easy-cook risotto rice might cause apoplexy in some chefs, but Uncle Ben's says that you would need a finely tuned palate to spot the difference between a well-made risotto using a classic grain such as Arborio and a risotto made using its easy-cook version.
Under the name Exsquissoto, easy-cook risotto was launched exclusively into the catering market three months ago and, while it has not been aggressively marketed, Uncle Ben's says that it has had a good reception from chefs. The benefit of using parboiled risotto rice is that you can add the stock in one go and simmer for 15 to 18 minutes, rather than following the traditional risotto method of adding hot stock, ladle by ladle.
Exsquissoto is the sort of short, squat rice that customers would expect to see in a risotto, but it will hold up in service because, like long-grain parboiled rice, the starch is sealed in.
If the monarch among long-grain rice is basmati, the king of round-grain rice has to be Italian risotto rice, and its royal palace the Pavia region of Italy. There are 85,000 hectares under cultivation here, and the soil, rainfall and climate make for wonderful growing conditions for the three superior varieties, Carnaroli, Arborio and Vialone Nano.
Arborio, with its plump, symmetrical shape, is the best known and most widely available risotto rice, but it needs care in cooking due to the soft starch it contains, as this can lead to a gluey consistency if it is overcooked. This is why risottos using Arborio are normally left with an al dente centre crunch.
Carnaroli is widely regarded as the superior Italian risotto rice, but it is expensive. It gives a creamy risotto and is liked by chefs not just for its flavour but for the consistent way it cooks and for the firmness it retains.
Vialone Nano is less well known outside Italy, but it is traditional in the Veneto area for the very creamy risottos it can produce due to its stubby grain, which is ideal if a recipe calls for a wet or soft consistency, as in a seafood risotto.
Jasmine rice is a long-grain rice, soft in cooking and with a chewy texture. Its popularity is relatively recent and, while it is often called Thai jasmine rice - because north-east Thailand is where it began to be grown for export in the 1970s, rather than for local consumption only - jasmine rice is now also grown in many parts of the world outside Thailand. Its other common name is fragrant rice, because of its delicate but distinctive aroma when cooked.
The cooking texture of jasmine rice varies according to its age and whether it has been blended or is from a single crop. Freshly harvested jasmine rice will be very soft when cooked, making it suitable for Chinese- and Japanese-style rice dishes. If you are making fried rice dishes which require a firmer grain, use aged rice or a blend of new and aged rice. Cook it and refrigerate it overnight to set the grain.
To cook all jasmine rice varieties, use the normal two parts water, one part rice method, but allow a little longer steaming than usual, say 20 minutes, to set the rice.
If you want genuine Thai jasmine rice, look on the bag for the wording "Thai Hom Mali Rice".