In the 80s, every so often Punjabi farmers would arrive in Delhi's residential colonies, phut-phutting away on their tractors and bearing large sacks of grain. They would knock on the doors and ask housewives if they'd like to buy wheat or basmati rice. They would offer these grains cheaper than at local stores, and they would expect the housewives to buy large quantities. Many families kept huge barrels to store the grain, and would not be averse to fifty or hundred kilogrammes. We had less storage space than most, but we too would buy the rice.
And what rice it was - fragrant and delicious! Quite different from the usual parmal that we ate, this was a grain fit for festivals and lordly occasions. Pulaos were more delicious with basmati, as were biryanis, and even plain rice with simple curries was tastier than usual. It would, therefore, be brought out only for special events. But eventually the Indian climate would begin to wear it down, weevils would appear in the dry grain, and we'd have to cook up the remainder in an orgy of fragrance and anticipation.
We would take trips to Kerala every so often, and there we would encounter the rich, red Kerala rice, unpolished and fat. Steaming ladlefuls on our plates accompanied by fish curry and every manner of coconut preparation tasted like heaven. 'This is the real rice,' the paterfamilias would say contentedly.
But he could only have it during those short few days of holidays - any more, and he'd complain of it sitting heavy in the stomach, difficult to digest. So we'd never bring any back to Delhi, and we'd go back to parmal and the infrequent basmati.
When I studied in Bangalore, the hostel messes were scenes of enormous piles of rice being cooked day and night. It is a staple in South India, after all, and it was consumed by the ton. I didn't stop to wonder what breed of rice it was, generic and flat and flavoured only because of the curries that we liberally mixed with it. Better yet was the stream of hot chapatis that the mess attendants would bring to the tables, and I began to lose my interest in rice.
Meanwhile, my family was in Japan, on my dad's final posting before retirement. They were staggered by the cost of the Japanese rice. The Japanese growers were a cartel that enforced high prices, which for whatever reason, the locals were willing to pay. This was a fine rice, sticky and chewy, but completely unsuitable for an Indian cuisine.
One year, the harvest of Japanese rice was worse than usual, and the prices shot up to levels that even the locals blanched at. In desperation, the government cast about for a replacement, and they settled on aromatic Thai rice. But the Japanese, conservative to the bitter end, refused to buy much of it, and the authorities had to offload it at throwaway prices. This was manna to the underpaid Third World types, and when I visited my folks, I was treated on a daily basis to the new grain.
It was superb, long grained and fragrant, intrinsically so flavourful it could be eaten without accompaniment. Mere dollops of coconut or jasmine would accentuate the taste. Unfortunately, this flavour would be completely subsumed by the spices of Indian cooking, and the rice would then take on the characteristics of parmal. Still, it was better than using Japanese rice for Indian cooking, and we managed rather well.
When I went to the US, I was amazed to find basmati everywhere. We had heard that the best basmatis were being exported from India - here I found not only Indian but Pakistani basmati as well. I couldn't tell the difference between the two, and consumed such quantities that before long the thrill was gone, and it became as pedestrian as any other.
I investigated other varieties - Mexican, for example, and short and long grained Californian. They were fine grains but with little novelty. Much better was the risotto, short and fat and creamy, while Spanish paella rice was remarkably thirsty, yet retaining its distinct grains when cooked.
Now I'm conducting a bit of an experiment. In the last few months, we've been trying different rices. First, our idea was to go back to that Kerala rice that the wife and I remembered so fondly. It has been a bit of a hit-and-miss experience. The red raw rice we first tried is spectacular in colour, but it doesn't quite match our memory of Kerala. I've also tried a parboiled red rice, which turns out to be a closer approximation. This is quite difficult to cook, though, requiring a pressure cooker and lots of water, and my green credentials are taking a bit of a beating.
Unfortunately, my experimentation has been without record-keeping, so I've forgotten all the varieties of rice I've recently tried. I do have vague recollections of Sri Lankan names and ponni and matta. These will have to do for the time being, until I discover the next great rice.