the-south-asian.com January/February 2006
Page 1 of 4
Basmati – The King of Rice
Salman S. Minhas [Information Engineers, Lahore, Pakistan]
Photo courtesy: brain.net.pk
“Mushki Chawalaan dey bharrey aan kothey ,
Soyan Pati tey Jhoneray chari dey neen,
Basmati, Musafaree, Begumee soon Harchand de zardiay dhari de neen,
Suthee, karchaka sewala ghard, kanthal, anu kekala, sari dey neen,
Bareek safed Kashmir, Kabul khurush jeray hoor te pari dey neen ….. “
Translated the above verse means:
“…Fragrant rice stores are filled in which Gold Leafed & ordinary rice are being threshed,
Basmati, Musafaree, Begumee, Harchand and Yellowish rice are getting stored,
Suthee, Karchaka, Sewala Ghard, Kanthal and Kekala rice are being moved,
Fine white Kashmir, Kabul rice dishes which are eaten by fairies and beautiful women ….”
[Source – Warris Shah’s [1725-1798] “Heer Ranjha” – an epic poem of Punjab, edited by Sharif Sabir, Published by the Warris Shah Memorial Committee, 1986, Lahore – Information & Culture Department, Government of Punjab. The-south-asian.com gratefully acknowledges this important historical verse location & translation help from Mr. Najm Hossain Syed, who is one of the most important contemporary Punjabi poets & writers in Lahore, Punjab – his writings include “Takht-e-Lahore”, Alfon Pairney Di Waar” ; see also his excellent book "Recurrent Patterns in Punjabi Poetry”]. Quite a number of movies, songs and paintings on Heer Ranjha have also been made.
Sathee rice was the type that ripened in 60 days hence sathee  basmati variety = 60 day basmati in Punjabi]
Rice – Historical Background – [Oryza sativa; vrihi – Sanskri)] Rice is a staple of almost fifty percent of the world’s population. It is a type of wild grass, which contains both the male and female genes for its fertilization and pollination by air. In the Vedas (3700-2000 BC) rice is referred to as "Dhaanya". The Indus-Saraswati civilization had wild rice in their diet in the advanced Mesolithic or pre-Neolithic (c. 8080 BC) period at Chopani Mando, and its use as husk and chaff as pottery temper is established at Koldiwah (c. 6570 BC) and Mahagara (c. 5440 BC). The discovery of grains of cultivated rice at Mahagara establishes the cultivation of Oryza sativa, more commonly known as rice. These three places, Chopani Mando, Koldiwah, and Mahagara are in the Ganges region of central Uttar Pradesh in India. Later its cultivation diffused in all directions in south Asia.
Ayurvedic literature mentions the use of rice in detail. Two treatises (samhitas), one by Charaka (c. 700 BC) and the other by Susruta (c. 600–400 BC) are available today. Both mention rice varieties in the context of their effects on human health. Charaka describes it as Raktashali (red), Mahashali (large and fragrant), Kalama (thick stem), Shakunarhita (curved), Turnaka (quick maturity), Deerghashuka (long awned), Panduka (yellowish), Langula, Sugandhika (fragrant), Lohawal (red), Shariva , Pramodaka (fragrant), Patanga ( resembling grasshopper /locust) .It was known to Kautilya and is frequently mentioned in the Buddhist Jataka tales. [500-200 BC].
In the Ain-i-Akbari written by Abul Fazl Allami around AD1590, the "imperial" kitchen during Akbar’s period wrote about Mushkin rice that is later mentioned in Waris Shah’s epic poem  and is still in the records of the Kala Shah Kaku Rice Institute, Lahore, Pakistan.
Jean Baptiste Tavernier, a European traveller who described the rice fields seen by him on a journey from Surat (Gujarat, India) in 1654 also mentions this musk scented rice. According to Dr.Y.L.Nene , the first mention of Basmati rice is by the poet Waris Shah quoted above..
For a detailed history of rice & Basmati, see Dr.Y.L.Nene’s excellent article [Rice Research in South Asia through Ages by Y L Nene, Asian Agri-History Foundation, Secunderabad 500 009, Andhra Pradesh, India.
A Handful of Rice
Over half of the world’s population has rice as its staple diet. India is the second largest grower of paddy rice in the world. In 2003 it produced over 132 million tons. Bangladesh is also one of the top producers, growing over 38 million tons. Pakistan produces over 6 million tons. Together, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh grow about 30 % of the global total of paddy rice.
The rivers Ravi & Chenab flow home quietly and southwards to the Arabian Sea through the land of five rivers or Punjab. These were once mighty rivers, but upstream dams and barrages have tamed their wildness. Gone too are the dense forests of Shisham & Keekar [rosewood & Acacia] and wild game seen so often in the hunting scenes of Mughal Miniature paintings. In their place, are rich farmlands criss-crossed with the largest irrigation canal system in the world [started during the British Colonial rule] that are now home to Basmati – The King of Rice.
Basmati Business : Selling at US $ 450-570 per ton [ retails at US $ 3- 5 per kilo in supermarkets in the west], Pakistan’s Basmati is a ceremonial feast among people of south Asia, Iran and Arab States. The markets in the Middle East are now saturated and those in Europe and America are still green. Basmati has brought much prosperity to the people of both east and west Punjab. India and Pakistan together export 1.3 million tons of Basmati rice. In India the export of Basmati rice is $420 million. In 2003, Pakistan had exported rice worth $555 million. IRRI-6 had secured an average price of $260 per ton, IRRI-9 $350 a ton, Basmati PK-385 $490 per ton and super Basmati $570 a ton.
Basmati Specifications: Though as many as 86 varieties have been classified as basmati, only 18 of them qualify under the strict basmati standards. Basmati rice has the following characteristics. The grain length is long (6.61 to over 7.5 mm). The shape or length-to-width ratio needs to be over 3.0 in order to qualify as basmati. The colour of basmati is translucent, creamy white. When cooked, the texture should be firm and tender without splitting, and it should be non-sticky. (This quality is derived from the amylose content in the rice. If this value is 20-22 per cent, the cooked rice does not stick. The glutinous, sticky variety preferred by chopsticks users has 0-19 per cent amylose). The rice elongates almost twice upon cooking but does not fatten much. Basmati aroma arises from a cocktail of 100 compounds — hydrocarbons, alcohols, aldehydes and esters. One key molecule, [founder Dr. R.G. Buttery], is 2-acetyl-1-pyrroline.
Basmati Lands: The geology of Basmati area forms part of Rachna Doab and consists of sediments brought by spill channels from the Chenab River. Old channels, levee remnants and old basins filled up with clay materials of late Pleistocene age derived from mixed calcareous sedimentary and metamorphic rocks have been washed down from lower Himalayas. The only mineral products of the District are Kankar and Kallar [salts].
Kallar is found on lands here and Mr. Mushtaq Rehar [a Basmati farmer & lawyer from the Alipur Chattha village], our host tells us that people used to scrape these salts and use them in washing clothes. It is not clear whether the word "kallar" refers to the salinity in the soil, or whether in the words of an agricultural engineer from the famous Kala Shah Kaku Rice Research Institute [KRRI], it is the shape of the Ravi and Chenab river courses that forms a "Collar" [pronounced "Kallar" in Punjabi] around the Punjab lands in which Basmati grows.
The soil & climatic conditions required for cultivation of basmati rice are available in a particular belt of land which runs in the Kallar districts of Punjab namely the Districts of Sheikhupura, Sialkot, Gujranwala , Narowaal, Hafizabad in Pakistan, and Amritsar & Gurdaspur in India — both border districts. The soil is a type of clay, which holds water very well. It is thus ideal for rice cultivation, which requires a lot of water in the early days. The sowing condition is unique for rice due to the scorching heat. The rice is grown in puddled fields in high temperatures that peak to 45ºC plus. The humidity is high and the drudgeries are further aggravated by the blinding reflection of the sun in hot water. Nevertheless it is these factors, especially the soil nutrients [zinc in particular, potassium and boron, which is under research] that give rise to the chemical cocktail that gives a musky fragrance to Basmati rice.
To the west, the Ganges & Jamuna form another Doaba [ land between 2 rivers; this is the same as the Greek word Mesopotamia] as they flow eastwards passing by the rich farmlands of Dehra Dun & Roorkee. All these river areas are home to Basmati - the King of Aromatic Rice – whose trail we now follow.
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