Basil is the queen of herbs. In Europe we associate it with Italian cuisine, but it also has wide application in Asia, especially Thailand.
Classsic Mediterranean Genovese basil
Sweet basil in flower
Thai lemon basil
Thai sacred basil
Thai basil seeds
|Species:||Ocimum basilicum, o. ×citriodorum, o. americanum, o. minimum, o. sanctum.|
Genus ocimum is widespread in Asia, Africa and Central and Southern America and was probably first put to cultivation in India. Today, basil is cultivated in many Asian and Mediterranean countries, the main exporters to the EU being France, Italy, Morocco and Egypt. There is also significant production in California. There are many cultivars, the most common being o. basilicum (common, sweet, Italian, Thai, cinnamon and other basils), o. americanum (lemon basil and lime basil), o. ×citriodorum (Greek column and Thai lemon basils), o. sanctum (Thai sacred basil) and o. minimum (Greek bush and dwarf bush basils).
Leaves. The entire herb is usually harvested before flowering. Basil leaves lose most of their flavour within a few weeks of drying. Seeds are used for thickening in Thailand, but do not share the fragrance of the leaves.
Lamiaceae (mint family).
Fresh basil leaves have a strong and characteristic aroma, not comparable to any other spice but with a hint of cloves. In addition to the "Mediterranean basil" most common in the West, there are many varieties with different flavour, most of which are hybrids. Indian sacred basil has an intensive, pungent smell, whereas Thai sweet basil has a distinctive, liquorice aroma.
All basil varieties have the property that their dried leaves are much less aromatic than fresh ones, so deep-freezing is the best method of preserving the herb. The common basil grown in Mediterranean countries is often called "sweet basil", but this is misleading because Thai basil has a sweeter quality.
The common name "basil" and botanical genus name basilicum are both derived from Greek basileus "king" because of the royal fragrance of the herb. Names for basil in almost all European languages are related, with some vowel variation, e.g. Icelandic basilíka, Russian vasilki, Provençal baseli, Basque brasilla and Greek vasilikos, derived from bainein "go" and laos "people".
Names like French herbe royal "royal herb" or Dutch koningskruid "king's herb" are probably derived from the Greek. Iberic names of basil such as Spanish albahaca, Portuguese alfavaca and Catalan alfàbrega are derived from Arabic, as inferred from the prefix al-. The original Arabic form is al-habaqa "the basil".
Several languages use terms related to the Arabic word raihan, meaning odour or fragrance, e.g. Farsi raihan and Turkish reyhan. Confusingly, the Arabic word rihan means common myrtle. The genus name ocimum is a Latinised derivation of the Greek verb ozein "smell", as in "ozone" and "odour".
Indic names for holy basil, e.g. Tamil tulasi and Hindi tulsi derive from Sanskrit tulasi. To distinguish holy basil from the European variety, compound names can be used, e.g. Hindi janglitulsi "forest basil" and Urdu kali tulsi "dark basil", referring to the reddish hue of the leaves. The Vietnamese name rau que "cinnamon plant" alludes to the sweet-aromatic odour of some cultivars such as Thai horapha, although this is closer to anise than it is to cinnamon. There are some cinnamon-flavoured basil varieties, but such varieties are not found in Vietnam.
Mediterranean basil is one of the most pleasant spices and is indispensable to several Mediterranean cuisines. The sweet, aromatic fragrance is especially popular in Italy. As the delicate aroma of basil is quickly destroyed by cooking, chopped basil leaves are frequently sprinkled over cold or warm dishes before serving. A typical and quite famous recipe often is insalata Caprese "Capri salad", made from tomato slices topped with creamy mozzarella cheese and basil leaves, seasoned with extra virgin olive oil.
The well-known pesto alla Genovese is a specialty of Liguria. The paste is made from fresh basil leaves together with extra virgin olive oil, pine nuts, garlic and aromatic local cheese (parmigiano or pecorino sardo) and is usually served with pasta. Besides tasting wonderful, pesto is an efficient way to preserve basil without freezing. Unfortunately, pesto is susceptible to enzymatic oxidation and non-acidic mixes must be made shortly prior to consumption. Southern Italian pesto rosso "red pesto" is made from sun dried tomatoes, chillies, olive oil, cheese, pine nuts and basil and due to acidity is much more stable against oxidation.
In Italian cuisine, basil is frequently combined with tomatoes, pickled olives, capers and garlic for tasty tomato sauces. Simple delicious salads are made from basil, tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar. Basil is less used for meat dishes as Italian cooks prefer oregano for this purpose.
Basil is very popular in Vietnam and Thailand, with basil aroma emanating from nearly every pot at roadside foodstalls. The famous Thai dish gai pad krapo uses chicken with chillies and basil to give flavour and hotness balanced by a subtle basil odour. When using basil in South-East Asian recipes, care must be taken to choose the correct variety.
Thai sweet basil horapha is mild and has a fascinating anise flavour somewhat comparable to tarragon, but more intensive. The flavour will not tolerate prolonged cooking, so the herb is either sprinkled over food immediately before serving or steeped for a minute or two in the hot foods. Thai sacred basil krapao has a pungent taste often described as peppery. It is most often used for stir-fries, as some cooking is necessary to develop its flavour. The third Thai basil variety, lemon basil, has a lime flavour and is mostly eaten raw as a garnish for fish.
A most interesting basil variety is ocimum gratissimum "tree basil", a wild basil from the tropics of Africa and Asia. It has a very intensive, dominant flavour of cloves but is highly pungent, with one or two of its large leaves enough for a pot. Tree basil improves almost all savoury foods, from roast chicken to braised beef and has a particular affinity for meats cooked in red wine.