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Basil, Ocimum basilicum, is a member of the Lamiaceaefamily
(the mint family) and is closely related to lavender, marjoram,
oregano, thyme and spearmint. There are numerous varieties of basil and
in this country the most commonly used basil is referred to as “sweet
basil” which is typically grown in Mediterranean countries. The name
“sweet basil” is a bit misleading, as Thai basil has much more of a
Sweet basil is the type found in Italian dishes, is most commonly used fresh and typically is added towards the end of the cooking process, as cooking quickly dissipates the herb's distinctive flavor.
Sweet basil has .5% to 1.1% essential oil, primarily linalool (40%) and methyl chavicol (25%). The strong clove scent of sweet basil is derived from eugenol which is the same chemical found in the spice cloves. In addition, soil, climate and time of harvest will impact not only the amount, but also the composition of the essential oil of that particular harvest.
Basil is called habaq, reehan (Arabic), yu xiang ca (Mandarin), basilie/basilic commun (French), basilikum (German), barbar (Hindi), bajiru (Japanese), manjericao (Portuguese), bazilik (Russian) and albahaca, alfabega (Spanish). Is also referred to as herb royale and great basil.
History of Basil
The name basil is derived from Greek basileus meaning "king" but
literally translates to "people’s leader.” During ancient times basil
was thought to possess magical qualities and the Greeks called it
basilisk as they believed that having it would protect them from a
legendary half-dragon, half-lizard reptile of the same name. This
monster was said to be the king of serpents and to possess the power to
cause death with a single glance. To the Greeks and Romans alike, basil
had to start its life enveloped in anger. It was said that screaming and
cursing at the seeds would be enough to encourage the plant to grow
better in quality than those basil plants that were placed calmly in the
ground by levelheaded individuals.
Another possibility for the royalty link in the name for basil comes from the mother of Constantine, St. Helena. It is said that she followed a trail of basil all the way to the True Cross, or the crucifix in Christian mythology. Other accounts detail basil sprouting from the cross itself.
In the history of the French language, the word for both the herb and the monster has always been basilic. Similarly, Latin used basiliscus to describe both.
Basil makes an impressive appearance in The Decameron, written by Giovanni Boccaccio, as the roots of the plant are the second resting place for the head of Lisbetta’s lover Lorenzo. Lorenzo had been slain by his brothers, who were upset by his indiscretions with Lisbetta. Lisbetta tended to her basil obsessively, crying the plant's only water into the dirt surrounding it. The number of tears she must have cried would have been immense, as the basil plant requires a steady amount of water to survive.
The 1500s was a time of ridiculousness altogether, and the case of basil is not above the norm. Tracing it back to an early English physician’s writings, people believed that scorpions would grow in the brains of people who frequently smelled basil. This same physician also thought that leaving basil unattended underneath a rock with in a moist environment would force the basil to transform into a scorpion. There is also another physician who insists that a patient was afflicted with a severe brain infestation of scorpions thanks to the herb’s aroma, essentially seconding the first physician’s claims. Other people, of less learned occupations, insisted that unattended basil would not transform into scorpions, but would instead change into thyme.
Basil has been cultivated for over 5,000 years, and most people incorrectly assume that basil is indigenous to the Mediterranean. Some botanists believe it’s native to Asia; more specifically Thailand and Vietnam on the Indian sub-continent. The Journal of American Society of Horticultural Scientists have published research showing that the greatest genetic diversity appears to be in these locations. Ancient Egyptians used basil, along with other substances, during religious ceremonies, and it was also used in the preparation of the balms used for mummification. Basil was most likely first introduced to Europe in the 1500’s by the Greeks and Romans.
Basil made its way to America in the 1620’s by the Europeans who settled at the Plymouth Colony in New England. New York newspapers dating back to the end of the eighteenth century showed stores advertising Sweet Basil for sale. Today, basil has many different uses, from medicinal to culinary. Basil is considered a good “cleansing” herb, and it also tastes delicious in a variety of different cuisines.
Basil leaves are broad, oval shaped, 2 to 3” long, and are
yellowish-green to bright green or red colored. The size and color of
the leaves depend on the variety, climate, and the soil make up where
the basil is grown. The texture of the leaves varies from silky and
shiny to dull and crinkly. The wide variation is the result of the many
cultivars in use. Small white to purple flowers appear in summer and are
arranged in whorls (an arrangement of sepals, petals, leaves, stipules
or branches that radiate from a single point and surround or wrap around
the stem) on the ends of branches.
Basil requires well-drained, fertile soils with a high organic matter content. Because the basil plant’s tissue is quite tender, it does not handle drought stress well and annual rainfall needs to be at a minimum of 27” for field cultivation.
Commercial producers use a sickle-bar type mower with an adjustable cutting height for harvesting. Some producers only harvest basil twice a year -- once before and then again during the full flowering stage. Other producers harvest the crop just as flowering begins as this allows for regrowth, and then up to three additional harvests are possible during the season. For faster regrowth, cuttings can be made at 4-6” above the ground. Harvesting should be done in sunny, warm weather, which provides optimal flavor.
Types of Basil
There are more than 50 species of basil and they differ in growth habit,
physiological appearance, as well as chemical and aromatic composition.
Most of the basil that is used in the US comes from three sources --
California, Egypt and France.
Our imported basil is harvested in Egypt.
Mediterranean Basil (Sweet basil), Ocimum basilicum, is the primary culinary basil and is the type most frequently used in Italian cuisine. Cinnamon Basil, Ocimum basilicum ‘Cinnamon’, has a pronounced cinnamon flavor and is most often used in soups or to make tea. Greek Basil, Ocimum basilicum var. minimum or ‘Spicy Globe’, has soft stems and a spicy character and is often found in salads. Lemon Basil, Ocimum americanum, has a distinctive fresh lemon aroma and is frequently added to soups and served with fish. Lime Basil, Ocimum basilicum citriodorum, has a mild citrus aroma and flavor and is often paired with grilled fish. Thai Basil, Ocimum basilicum var. thrysiflora ‘Siam Queen’, is sweet, a bit spicy and is most often used in Indian and Thai cooking.
Cooking with Basil
Extraordinarily popular in both American and Italian kitchens, basil is
also revered in French cuisine where it is a key ingredient in some
versions of the dried herb blends Fine and Herbs de Provend.
Basil is also found in recipes from China, the Mediterranean, Taiwan,
Thailand and Vietnam. Sweet basil is prominently featured in varied
cuisines throughout the world including Italian, Thai, Vietnamese and
The Italians are very fond of a sauce called pesto that features basil as a key ingredient. While there are variations of course, the traditional recipe for pesto sauce is primarily basil leaves, garlic, pine nuts, and parmesan cheese, combined with high quality olive oil into a thicker paste that can be added pasta. This sauce has its origins in Genoa, which is located in the Liguria region of northern Italy. Basil is also traditionally used in Italian famed tomato-based sauces, dressings, and juices.
The Taiwanese consider basil to be the heart of many of their dishes, including the very popular “three cup chicken.” This name refers to the equal balance of three ingredients: the soy sauce, Chinese rice wine, and sesame oil. Three cups is not an actual measurement, it just refers to the harmonizing and equal ratio of the ingredients. A three cup chicken recipe is not considered truly authentic if basil is not present.
The Chinese use basil in a variety of recipes as well, from soups to noodle dishes. Dishes like “stir fried chicken and eggplant with Asian basil” or “noodles with mushrooms and lemon ginger dressing” feature basil heavily as a star ingredient. These dishes are less strict than the Taiwanese “three cup chicken” and are considered authentic even if basil is not included.
While it is common to see basil leaves in recipes, and that is probably what you think of when you think about cooking with basil, they are not the only part of the plant that can be used. Basil seeds, or sabja, can also be used to spice up dishes like ice cream or lemonade. Nam manglak is a sweet Thai drink made with rose water, honey, and basil seeds which give the drink a chewy texture. They are soaked in water for five to ten minutes which allows their outer epidermis to swell into little globular balls of goodness that taste slightly floral when chewed through. Sometimes this step is eliminated and the seed are dropped directly into the prepared drink and left to sit for a few minutes there instead. The mucilage that forms on the seeds is thought to soothe stomach aches and so these drinks have become popular with people who suffer from stomach problems. Nam manglak can be altered with any extra flavoring you may desire. Some people claim that watermelon flavored nam manglak is the best because the floral tasting sabja seeds pair so well with flavor the watermelon juice. Any fruity drinks made with basil seed are best when consumed cold. These seeds are also added to yogurts and ice creams for texture or to fruit salads to stave off hunger, as they expand in the stomach and are high in fiber.
Basil is good with capers, corn, cream cheese, eggplant, eggs, lemon, mozzarella cheese, olives, pasta, peas, pizza, potatoes, rice, tomatoes, white beans and zucchini.
Basil works well in combination with chives, cilantro, garlic, marjoram, oregano, mint, parsley, rosemary and thyme.
Dried vs Fresh
When dried, basil has better flavor. The drying process forces the
collapse of the plant tissue, and brings about more essential oils in
the herb. The increased oils also increase the ease of which food around
the herb can absorb its flavors. Other herbs that are better dried
include marjoram, oregano (a close cousin of majoram), rosemary and
Cilantro, curry leaves, dill weed, lemon grass and tarragon are herbs that are better when consumed fresh.
What does Basil taste like?
Basil is an extremely aromatic herb. It has pepper, anise, and minty
tones, and it tastes sweet yet savory, just as the scents would imply.
Substitutions and Conversions
If you are looking to replace basil in a recipe, oregano or thyme are suitable substitutions.
If your recipe calls for one tablespoon of fresh basil, you can replace that with one teaspoon of dried basil.