Going against the grain

Intrepid surveyor of world cuisine Louis Labron-Johnson steps up to the plate and heads to Dehli, where some of the world’s best chefs work their magic with the celebrated basmati rice…

‘The fragrant one’

Across the vast, unwieldy beast that is the sub-continent of India, rice is the staple diet of every inhabitant. From Moghul emperors to outcaste tribes, for millennia Indians have partaken of the many thousands of varieties of rice grown on hillside paddies and steppes. Of all these rice families, the undisputed queen is basmati, a strain of long grain rice renowned for its fragrance and delicate, nuanced flavour. basmati is cultivated exclusively in the Punjab region, irrigated by the Sutluj River which runs through the foothills of the Himalayas.

Although the vast majority of basmati is consumed in India, worldwide demand is growing fast, not least in the UK, where basmati now accounts for over half of all rice sold. Seen more and more as a vital cooking ingredient in our kitchens, part of the popularity of basmati is down to its flexibility: the rice can be successfully used in almost every type of cuisine, from Mexican chillis to Italian risottos to Spanish paellas, even Japanese sushi can be created using the basmati strain.

Basmati For The World

To celebrate the diversity of basmati, APEDA – the agricultural developmental authority of India – annually hosts the basmati For The World Exposition in New Dehli, the colourful, ramshackle Indian capital. Distinguished chefs from all over the world are invited to take part in a twoday cooking event, showcasing fantastic dishes from their country of origin. The only stipulation is that said dishes are in some way made using basmati.

This year, over 30 top chefs from the UK, France, Italy, Spain, Mexico and the USA created a number of basmatirelated recipes, and the results were both innovative and delicious. Lionel Levy of France made excellent rice ball fritters, while US chef David Felton’s succulent and aromatic butter-poached Maine lobster with basmati rice and Thai curry sauce became a personal favourite.

The second day of the event was dedicated to Indian cuisine, and headlined by top chef Shilpi Gupta, who is to India what Gordon Ramsey is to us – minus the profanity. The dishes were by-and-large outstanding, and a far shout from the tikka masala that we are perhaps more familiar with in the UK. Curry is a British-coined word that has no equivalent in Indian, and represents a breed of dish indigenous to the UK, specifically Birmingham, where Korma et al originated in the Seventies. Indian cuisine is much more varied, mostly vegetarian, and fiercely regional. One of the most superb dishes was Shilpi’s own lamb biryani, a melt-in-the-mouth experience perfectly balanced with fluffy saffron rice. Shilpi was kind enough to share the recipe – taken from a man regarded by many to be the finest chef on the sub-continent, it’s certainly one well worth adding to your repertoire. The versatility of basmati is matched only by its unique flavour, and makes this particular rice a must-have for any store cupboard.

Lamb Biryani

Serves 10

  • 1kg basmati rice
  • 800g boneless lamb chop/shank
  • 100g ghee or butter
  • 1.25l beaten curd/yoghurt
  • 6 cardomom pods
  • 4 cloves
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 1 tsp caraway seeds
  • 1 tsp yellow chilli powder
  • 1 tsp red chilli powder
  • 50ml cooking oil
  • 3 onions
  • 20g ginger
  • 0.5g saffron


  1. Wash and soak rice for 30 min. Place lamb in heavy-bottomed pan with all powdered and whole spices. Add curd and oil, mix, and cook for 20 minutes.
  2. Boil 1.25l water, add Basmati rice, salt and whole spices, and cook until rice is ¹⁄³ done. Strain rice.
  3. Arrange lamb, marinade and rice over each other in layers. Add ghee, saffron and onions on top, seal lid of pot, and place in oven at 150°C for 30 mins.
  4. Serve in an open dish.

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