Even as India battles multiple challenges to its preferential commercial status of ‘Basmati’, it is important to know why it has a right to stake first claim. Basmati is one of India’s rich bundle of traditional knowledge.
Recently, India, the world’s largest exporter of basmati rice, has applied for protected geographical indication (PGI) status from the European Union’s Council on Quality Schemes for Agricultural Products and Foodstuffs. This would give it sole ownership of the basmati title in the EU. Pakistan, which is the only other basmati rice exporter in the world, has opposed this move citing it would impact its exports.
Late 1997, the United States Patent and Trademark Office granted a patent to Ricetec Inc., for a novel grain. This novel grain was also named basmati and claimed to have better qualities than the original grain. The novel grain was developed by inter-breeding original basmati with the American strain Texmati. Many Indian NGOs like Center for Food Safety and even the Center for Scientific and Industrial Research objected to the patent. It was vital that the patent be retracted because if the patent stayed, that would put restrictions on the commodity by indigenous communities. They eventually won the patent battle and protected their traditional crop.
India is home to a wide variety of rice that are found in many treatises including Sangam literature. Among the varieties, scented rice were prominent in ancient India. Basmati from the northwest, Kalanamak from Uttar Pradesh, Jeerakasambha of Tamil Nadu and Ambemohor of Maharashtra are few of the known varieties of scented rice.
There have been many references to them in various texts. Scented rice was indeed a favourite among the Royals and the elite members of the society. The earliest reference to aromatic rice has been found in the Charaka and Sushrutha Samhita. Acharya Charaka in his book divided scented rice into three types- Mahasali (large grained), Sugandhaka (flavoured) and Pramodaka (fragrant). Acharya Sushrutha added two more to that list- Pundrika (white lotus like fragrance) and Pushpandaka (fragrance of flowers).
In the 9th century, Kashyapa wrote a book Kashyapiyakrishisukti which is considered to be the earliest treatise dedicated to agriculture. He divided rice into 26 groups among which four were the scented groups. It was also mentioned in a 14th century Assamese version of the Ramayana written by poet Kaviraja Madhava Kandali.
Basmati, an aromatic rice variety native to India, derives its name from two Sanskrit words- Vas meaning aroma and matup meaning ingrained or possessing. This cereal was initially found growing in the northern parts of India specifically Haryana, Punjab, Chandigarh Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. Now the grain is widespread across the world, yet India remains the largest exporter of Basmati rice.
Basmati variants include red-brown, black and golden. Lal Basmati, the red-brown variety was found to be used extensively in the royal kitchen of Akbar. This variety, extensively grown in the west, is resistant to insects and other pests when compared to the other variants. This dark red husked variant ripened quickly and contained small white grains.
A look into the footprints of Basmati- Basmati was sent as gifts to other royals and noblemen who visited India. That was the value of Basmati rice. It was allowed to be grown for royal use only, under the king’s supervision. For instance, Tapovan basmati in Uttarakhand was grown by the entire village of Tapovan for king’s consumption. The Nawab of Hyderabad grew fond of the variety and issued an order for it be grown in his kingdom. Needless to say, the British too appreciated Basmati and grew it in eastern India. The king of Iran took a basmati equivalent to Iran. Alexander is also said to have taken rice back to Greece.
Basmati rice plays a role in ayurvedic cooking. White basmati rice is considered sattvic and balances the tridoshas. It builds body tissues and is rich in Prana, the life-force. Dr Somit Kumar, Director, AVP Research Foundation adds, “Basmati possesses a sweet rasa and is known to increase Vata/Kapha while decreasing Pitta. It reduces thirst, tiredness and more importantly, it strengthens the body and the developing foetus.”
Basmati was consumed not just due to its aroma but also due to the numerous benefits it had. Rice is a staple grain in India and is consumed in various forms across the nation. Off-late, a large section of the population has decided to keep rice at bay. Most rice varieties have a high glycaemic content and it is replaced by rice that has low glycaemic content or other grains such as millets or the “newcomer” Quinoa.
Basmati is a tall slender grain possessing exquisite smell (owing to the presence of 2-acetyl-1-pyrroline) and taste. Contrary to most rice varieties having a high complex carbohydrate content, basmati has a low glycaemic index (GI). This gives all of us a reason to not skip and replace rice in our everyday meal. GI is a measure of quickly blood sugar rises in the body after consuming a particular food. Rice in general does have a high GI, however, the GI of basmati rice is between 50-55. Brown basmati rice has an even lower GI.
Brown basmati rice has the outer bran layer intact making it chewier and also imparts a nutty flavour to it. White rice does not have the outer bran layer and this makes it softer and stickier. Brown basmati is packed with fibre that aids in smooth digestion and reduces the risk of gastrointestinal issues. Basmati is loaded with amino acids, magnesium and selenium. These aid in carbohydrate and protein metabolism. Selenium helps in the proper functioning of the thyroid gland.
Basmati rice has many benefits to it. It is not only ideal for diabetes and proper heart functioning, but also reduces the risk of cancer, regulates blood pressure due to the good amount of magnesium and potassium in it, and it is great to manage weight. Basmati rice has high amount of amylose. Amylose is a resistant starch that promotes and maintains weight loss, reduces postprandial insulinemia (high concentration of insulin post eating), increases fat oxidation, lowers fat storage in adipocytes and preserves lean body mass (Janine A. Higgins, 2014). Presence of amylose in basmati keeps the rice grains separate without sticking to one another. Furthermore, basmati is enriched with vital nutrients such as iron, folic acid, thiamine and niacin.
We are home to a variety of rice strains suited to each climate, geographical location, health conditions and more. Ayurveda also recommends and stresses on eating locally sourced food. Pick the rice that best suits you and eat everything in moderation. There is no reason to give up on it and look for other sources. Generations of Indians have eaten rice and built this strong and beautiful nation.