This famous Indian rice is the staple that most people associate with Sub-Continental food in the west. If you walk into just about any curry joint in any westernized country, this is the rice you will generally receive with your meal.
In India, this is definitely not the case. Basmati is considered to be the King of rice, domain of the wealthy. Poorer people will only encounter this noble grain on special occasions such as religious festivals and weddings. There are over 200 varieties of rice grown in India, and on a day-to-day basis, patna rice, a lesser variety related to basmati is eaten by the general populace.
Just about all true rice eaten on this planet is a sub-variety of a single, hugely diverse and hugely important species, Oryza sativa. The Indians were the first civilization to domesticate rice, sometime around 3000 BC. The grain spread to other parts of Asia as a domesticated staple over the following 1000 years, but it was not until 355 BC, when Alexander the Great entered India that rice spread to other parts of the world. There is no evidence, but a distinct possibility remains - this rice could have been basmati.
Varieties and Treatment
There are several different varieties of basmati rice, and in general they are named after the region in which they are grown. Varieties such as Punni, Duhra Dun, Jeera-Sali and Dehli are highly regarded, but it is basmati grown in the foothills of the Himalayas that is considered the best. Dehranduni basmati is grown in the Northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh and is truly the Rolls-Royce of Indian rice. This rice is kept to be served at highly sacred and symbolic occasions - definitely not to be wolfed down with your next vindaloo.
Fine basmati rice is also aged, in much the same manner as fine wine. These rices are set in a humidity-controlled environment for periods of up to 10 years, and they yield a noticeably superior result - evenly fluffy and defiantly separate, fragrant grains.
Basmati rice belongs to a group of rices known as indica. They are typified by long grains and their tendency to remain separate once cooked. Raw grains of basmati are easily identified by the naked eye; they are translucent, long and slender - even longer than that other famously fragrant Asian rice, jasmine. When cooked, basmati presents a subtle, yet easily identifiable fragrance - its aroma is almost earthy. Basmati is most overwhelmingly used in savoury dishes, either as an accompaniment or cooked into the famous pilaus and biryanis of the Sub-Continent. If it is to be used in sweet dishes at all, they will always be intricate and symbolic dishes such as the heavenly kheer.
Most Asian rices are cooked without salt, yet in India, as well as Sri Lanka and Malaysia, your guests will definitely be taken aback by its absence. As the Asian culinary authority Charmaine Solomon says, Indian rice cooked without salt would be an "...unpardonable oversight..."
Interestingly, a fair amount of rice in India, including basmati, is par-cooked. This practice originated some 2000 years ago and it is still a popular tradition in Northern India today. This is how they do it. Whole, un-husked grains of rice are soaked in plain water overnight. They are then drained and steamed for 10 minutes, left to dry completely, then polished. Polishing rice simply means removing the husk - the same practice that makes brown rice white. This par-cooking process also hardens the grain, so not only does it become brittle and suitable for milling, it actually takes longer to cook as well. Par-cooking rice in such a manner is thought to increase its nutrition value, because some of the bran from the husk is steamed into the grain.
They are two schools of thought on how to cook basmati rice - the open boil method and the absorption method. I personally subscribe to the latter, particularly for long grain rice. Take a look at anthropod's write-up here for a detailed method.