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Who Owns Basmati? The Complicated Story of Texmati Rice.

updated May 10, 2021
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Growing up in Rajasthan, Nimai Pandit loved Sundays. That was when his mom would make basmati rice to accompany dinner. The family wasn’t wealthy, and couldn’t afford to have basmati every day, so he savored those times when it was cooked. 

“I would be playing outside the home and we could smell the fragrance,” Pandit says. “That was 40 years back. I remember distinctly that fragrance.” 

In South Asia there are countless varieties of rice, with different ones prized across each region. But according to Pandit — who now runs Gopal Farm in the Hudson Valley, where he grows South Asian varieties of produce — basmati is “the queen,” the type known the world over for its distinct toasty, nutty flavor and fluffy texture. It’s also an agricultural staple in India, Pakistan, and other parts of South Asia. India alone accounts for over half of global basmati rice production, and in 2018 earned 18,000 crore rupees (or about 214 million dollars) in exports of the crop. 

So it was intriguing to many when, in 1984, Robin Andrews, a London-native-turned-Texan and the chief executive of the rice company RiceTec, developed a high-end rice that was a cross between basmati and American long-grain rice that could be grown right in Texas. (Traditional basmati can’t be grown in the U.S. — the climate just doesn’t allow for it.) Pioneered earlier by researchers at Louisiana State University, this variety was called Texmati. It combined the fragrance of basmati with the familiarity of an American long-grain rice. RiceTec charged customers a premium for Texmati, and it was immediately popular, becoming a staple in grocery stores across the country and doing 7 million dollars in sales a year. 

When Andrews developed Texmati, there was no patent that prohibited him from creating basmati varietals, yet many South Asians were outraged that the U.S. would attempt to appropriate this fundamental part of their agricultural heritage. The success of this crop born from disconnecting a grain from its roots begs the question of whether these sorts of evolutions are a force for good, or do a disservice to the originating culture. 

Texmati “was definitely the flagship” rice, says Mike Gumina, RiceTec’s current chief executive. At the time, when the rice selection at many stores was fairly homogeneous, Texmati helped “differentiate from all the other bagged rice on the shelf” because of its unique name and texture. Soon, more American variants on basmati entered the market, from Kasmati (marketed as “Indian-style” basmati rice) to Missimati (grown in Mississippi, as the name suggests). 

In a 1998 Wall Street Journal article, the cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey expressed her dismay about the Texmati situation, saying, “It’s our plant and has meaning and history.” The story called the rice a form of “commercial imperialism.” “Two hundred years ago, the British came for trading, and then ruled us,” A.S. Moorthy, an Indian rice exporter, was quoted as saying in that same story. “Everyone’s afraid the same thing is happening now: America is using our products to overtake us commercially.”

RiceTec eventually filed for and received a patent not for the name basmati (this was often  misreported), but for the specific aroma and elongation of the grain. Nonetheless, it gave RiceTec control over basmati production in North America. And the company didn’t even have to acknowledge the grain’s South Asian origins. 

Pandit knows a lot of South Asian Americans who buy Texmati rice. “They don’t know the difference” between it and basmati, because there is a distinct lack of education on the part of the companies who sell the rice — some South Asian Americans think it’s essentially the same as basmati. 

RiceTec eventually filed for and received a patent not for the name basmati, but for the specific aroma and elongation of the grain.

In the early 2000s, in an effort to preserve its cultural identity, the Indian government attempted to designate special geographical status to basmati (similar to the L’Appellation d’origine contrôlée in France, which ensures, for example, that Roquefort cheese can only be produced in the caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon). But those efforts were — and continue to be — met with opposition, both from Pakistan, which also grows basmati rice, and other basmati-growing regions within India that were not included in the proposal.

Two decades later, Texmati is still popular. In 2015, RiceTec sold some of its products, including Texmati, to the food company, Riviana, which is a subsidiary of an even larger Spanish-based company called Ebro Foods. A spokeswoman for Riviana says Texmati sales were up 30 percent in 2020 compared to the previous year, and the grain is available in two-thirds of grocery stores nationwide. And for today’s generation of Indian-American chefs and farmers, many of whom grew up in the U.S. or have lived here longer than they lived in India, varieties like Texmati raise more complicated feelings. 

Pandit points out that within South Asia itself, basmati rice isn’t what it used to be. “The original basmati was grown only in the Dehradun Valley, because that micro-climate enhances the fragrance,” he says. But as demand for basmati has grown, there are now tons of hybridized varieties, cultivated all over South Asia. This makes him skeptical of the idea that basmati varietals should not be grown in the U.S. “Even in India, there was a specific place [to grow basmati],” he says, and yet “everywhere else around they are growing hybrid and it is not the same quality.” 

He started his farm because he noticed that many of the South Asian varieties of vegetables he tried from India weren’t high-quality. They were being bred for yield, rather than flavor. So he sources his seeds from India, growing varieties like ghost peppers from Assam, making sure to educate his customers on the history of the crop, and its geographical origin.  

If Pandit has a problem with Texmati, it’s in the marketing. “They need to not be such colonialists,” he says. Texmati “falls into the larger picture of taking a bioresource” and “owning it, and that has been going on [since] imperial times.” 

“There is nothing wrong with growing something from India,” he clarifies. “But we should acknowledge the origin. We should acknowledge not only the region but also the people who have preserved this variety for millennia. It takes a lot to preserve a seed. It is a whole culture. There is a whole community.” 

“This issue is if these farmers are claiming that it is better than basmati,” says Vishwesh Bhatt, the chef and owner of Snackbar in Oxford, Mississippi, whose menu blends Bhatt’s Indian heritage and American South setting. As long as the respect is there, “then more power to them.” 

“We should acknowledge not only the region but also the people who have preserved this variety for millennia. It takes a lot to preserve a seed. It is a whole culture.”

Niven Patel, who runs multiple restaurants and a farm in Miami, agrees. He points out that there are plenty of farms in the U.S. who are approaching rice cultivation thoughtfully — like Koda Farms in Dos Palos, California, which has been growing Japanese styles of rice since the 1910s. 

Mike Wagner, who grows Missimati rice at his Two Brooks Farm in Sumner, Mississippi, says there are environmental benefits to these basmati variations, as some of them require less water to cultivate. He objects to companies laying claim over basmati without acknowledging its cultural roots, but he adds that “pollen is like people, drifting around the world. We are all subject to whatever environment we land in.” Wagner also spends a lot of time talking to his customers about the origins and unique characteristics of each rice — he understands that context is important.  

Pandit compares Texmati rice to rajma, a spiced kidney bean stew that’s an essential part of Punjabi cuisine. But kidney beans themselves arrived in India from Europe. This is how food evolves. Many foods, from rajma to Texmati, are the delicious results of this natural blending. 

“There will be these cross pollinations,” Pandit says. They’re inevitable. “Why stop it?”