What is Basil?

The word Basil is derived from the Greek ‘basiikon phyton’ which means ‘kingly herb‘. It had been considered “royale” to the French. In India the people worship basil more highly than kings; it is regarded as a sacred herb dedicated to the gods Vishnu and Krishna. In India, Basil was held in such high esteem that it was used in courts to swear upon, and next to the Lotus it was considered one of the most sacred plants. This plant was used as an embalming herb in Ancient Egypt. In some parts of Mexico, Basil is carried in one’s pocket to attract money and to keep a lover faithful. For the ancient Greeks and Romans the herb was a symbol of malice and lunacy. They believed that to successfully grow basil, one had to yell and curse angrily while sowing the seeds. In French, semer le basilic, “sowing basil,” means “raving”.

Basil certainly seems to be a herb that no-one felt indifferently about. Pliny, the celebrated first century AD Roman scholar, considered it to be an aphrodisiac and it was given to horses during the mating season. In Italy, basil symbolized love; when a lady left a pot of it in her window it was a signal that her lover was welcome. Leave it to the Italians to intermingle food and love. In Romania, a young man was considered to be engaged if he accepted a sprig of basil from a young lady.

Basil has traditionally been given as a good-luck present to new homeowners. This is possibly why a modern custom has developed which maintains that basil will attract customers to a place of business if a sprig of the herb is placed in the cash register.

Varieties of Basil

There are many different types of basil, however the succulent, large-leaved, sweet basil is by far the most popular variety for culinary use. Basil’s refreshing, clove and anise-like aroma conjures p memories of summer, hardly surprising when one considers how this warmthloving annual thrives in the heat and expires with the first chills of winter. Sweet basil plants grow to around 20 in. (50 cm) high and even more in ideal conditions. The stems are tough, grooved and square with dark-green, oval, crinkly leaves from 1 in. (30 mm) to 4 in. (100 mm) long. The tiny, white, long-stamened flowers should be nipped off to prevent the plant from going to seed and finishing its life cycle. This will also encourage thicker foliage and hence more abundant harvests for the basil-loving cook. The taste of sweet basil is far less pungent than the permeating, heady aroma of the freshly picked leaves would suggest, thus large quantities can be used with safety. Dried sweet basil leaves are quite different from the fresh, and although the fragrant, fresh-smelling top notes disappear upon drying, a concentration of volatile oils in the cells of the dehydrated leaves give a pungent clove and allspice bouquet. This is matched by a faint rninty, peppery flavor that is ideal for long, slow cooking. Other varieties of basil are bush basil which has small leaves 1/3 -1/2 in. (10-15 mm) long. It grows to about 6 in. (150 mm) high and the foliage has a less pungent aroma and lower flavor-strength than sweet basil. The two types of purple basil, serrated leaved ‘purple ruffle‘ and the smoother ‘dark opal basil‘ mainly grown for decorative purposes, have a mild pleasing flavor and look attractive in salads and as a garnish. ‘Hairy basil‘ or ‘Thai basil‘ has slender oval leaves with deep serrations on the edges and a more camphorous aroma than sweet basil. Although the seeds of this variety (referred to as subja in India) have no distinct flavor, they swell and become gelatinous in water and are used in Indian and Asian sweets, drinks and as an appetite suppressant. Holy basil or tulsi as it is called in India, has mauve-pink flowers, is perennial and is lightly lemon scented. Cinnamon basil has a distinct cinnamon aroma, with long, erect flower heads. It is also an attractive plant and its leaves complement Asian dishes. The perennial camphor basil (O. kilimanscharicum) is not used in cooking, but its distinctive camphorous aroma makes it a pleasant decorative herb to have in the garden.

Preparation and Storage

Avoid buying fresh basil that is wilted or has black marks on the leaves. Bunches of fresh basil may be frozen and stored successfully for a few weeks.The best method is to place a small bunch in a clean plastic supermarket bag, blow some air in to inflate it, and place in the freezer where it will not be squashed.You will find it quite convenient to then nip offjust a few of these frozen leaves when they are required.

Another effective way to preserve basil is to pick the larger leaves, wash and dry them and then place each leaf in a wide-mouthed shallow jar, sprinkling a little salt on each leaf as you stack them up in the container. Fill the jar with olive oil so all leaves are covered, screw the lid on firmly and keep in the refrigerator. Depending upon the quality of the fresh leaves, basil stored this way should last up to three months before any blackening occurs. Dried basil is dark green in color and is readily available from food stores, however as for all other dried herbs, only buy dried basil in good quality packaging to retain maximum flavour and store in a cool dark place.

Cooking with Basil

Basil’s pervading, clove-like aroma makes it such an ideal complement to tomatoes that it is often referred to as ‘the tomato herb’. It is interesting to note how flavors across the herb and spice spectrum can have similar attributes, and it is often these degrees of commonality that give us an indication of the breadth of uses they can encompass.

Cloves also happen to go well with tomatoes and there are many commercially made tomato sauces and canned foods such as Scandinavian herrings with tomato, that contain either cloves or the very clove-tasting spice, allspice. Basil also complements other vegetables such as eggplant, zucchini, squash and spinach. When added within the last half an hour of cooking, basil enhances the flavor of vegetable and legume (split peas, lentil) soups.

Most salads, especially those with tomato, benefit greatly from the addition of fresh basil. Basil goes well with poultry when used in stuffing, is included in soups and stews and added to sauces and gravies. Fish brushed with olive oil, dusted with freshly ground black pepper, wrapped in foil with a few basil leaves and barbecued, is a simple and effective way to enjoy this versatile herb. Basil is used in pâtés and terrines, where its volatile notes will help counteract the richness of liver and game. A tasty vinegar to have on hand for making salad dressings is made by placing a dozen or more fresh, washed basil leaves in a bottle of white wine vinegar and leaving it for a few weeks.

There are countless species of basil – Richters’ catalogue lists 37 – but the enduring winner in the kitchen is Sweet Basil (Ocimum basilicum), with its close relative Genovese Basil being preferred for pesto. Pesto, the ultimate basil experience, is made from basil, parmesan cheese, pine nuts, garlic, salt and oil and is one of the most effective ways to store and use basil. Pesto can be the basis of a quick meal when tossed through freshly cooked pasta and is an excellent spread on fresh crusty bread, topped with slices of fresh tomato and washed down with a glass of good Shiraz. The lemon basils, with their citrus tang, are excellent for desserts, soups, tea, lemonade and for cooking with fish and chicken.

Asian cultures have their own species and uses of basil. Fancy purple or opal basil adds herbaceous character to stir-fries and stocks all over Thailand. A chiffonade of fresh leaves can perk up Asian soups, and frequently flowering buds that show particular pungency are used to impart impressively strong herbal character. With the Asian affinity for unusual textures, there is even a coconut-based drink with black basil seeds for a slight peppery kick. Cinnamon Basil does not cook well, but contributes an interesting piquancy to stewed tomatoes. Thai basil, with its pronounced anise-licorice aroma and flavoury is excellent with green curries and stir-fry dishes.

Basil leaves are best used whole or torn; most cooks advising against cutting the leaves with a knife, as this tends to dissipate the aroma. To make dried basil taste a little closer to fresh when putting on grilled tomatoes, zucchini or eggplant, mix 1 tsp (5 mL) of basil with 1/2 tsp (2 mL) each of lemon juice, water and oil and 1/8 tsp (0.5 mL) of ground cloves. Let stand for a few minutes, then spread onto halved tomatoes or slices of eggplant before grilling.

Health Benefits of Basil

In the first century A.D., Roman naturalist Pliny reported that Basil relieves flatulence, which had been subsequently proven true. In the Far East, the herb had been used as a cough medicine, and in Africa, it has been used to expel worms. American colonists considered Basil the essential ingredient in a snuff used to ease headaches. The above ground portion of this plant is used medicinally. Primary chemical constituents of Basil include essential oil (estragol, eugenol, lineol, linalol), caffeic acid, tannins, beta carotene, and vitamin C. Basil is aromatic, and carminative. It will help to expel flatulence, and ease griping pains in the abdomen. The essential oil obtained from this plant contains camphor. Medicinally, Basil has also been used for various topical applications – as a poultice or salve for insect bites, acne and ringworm; as a gargle or mouthwash for thrush; as a bath herb for increased energy; and as an eyewash for tired eyes. The essential oil of Basil is added to massage oils for sore muscles. And the dried herb was burned as an antiseptic incense. Having a pot of Basil on the table also helps to repel flies & mosquitoes. The juice can be applied to fungal infections. Basil is antispasmodic, carminative, galactagogue, and stomachic. It had been sometimes used for whooping cough.

Growing Basil

Some species of basil will grow as perennials in the tropics, but it is always grown as an annual in temperate zones. Very sensitive to cold, basil is best grown from seed indoors, in pots and only transplanted to the herb garden after all risk of frost is long past and the soil temperature has reached at least 50ºF. Basil likes full sun in well-drained soil that contains well-rotted manure or good compost, but unlike other herbs it can’t tolerate drought. Mulching will help maintain soil moisture, but be careful not to mulch until the soil is warm. Once flourishing, cut every stem of the herb back to the second set of leaves and don’t allow it to flower. You will be rewarded with ongoing basil all summer.

Other Names

Arabic: raihan
Chinese: lo-le
Dutch: basil icum
French: basilic
German: basilïenkraut
Indian: sabzah,tulsi,gulal tulsi
Indonesian: selasih, kemangi
Italian: basilico
Japanese: meboki
Malay: selaseh, kemangi
Phillipino: belanoi, sulasi
Portuguese: man jericao
Russian: Bazilik
Spanish: albahaca
Sri Lanka: suwenda-tala, maduru-tala
Swedish: basilkort
Thai: horopa, manghk, krapow, bai horapa
Vietnamese: rau que

Scientific Name

Ocimum basilicum Fam: Lamiaceae (mint family)

Photo by: Castielli / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)