Basil. That herb in pesto, on fancy pizza and at that new Thai place downtown. Simple, right?
Well, it’s not that simple. There’s a reason the ancient Greeks literally named it “king plant”. There are more than 100 varieties of basil, and its culinary hegemony ranges from Calcutta to Casablanca.
That’s right, basil is literally everywhere. Of course, everyone knows Italian basil – and you probably know Thai basil, too. But what about holy basil, Christmas basil, cinnamon basil, purple ruffle, fino verde, sweet Genovese, boxwood and African blue?
Basil varieties come in any number of shapes, textures and colours, with flavours ranging from liquorice to pine nut. Tossing the wrong leaf into your dish can be catastrophic: reach for the mild Italian Genovese when the recipe calls for the spicy Siam Queen and you’ll soon realise the error of your ways. Basically, you need to Know Your Basil and treat it with respect.
The ancients respected the plant, and so should you
The ancient Greeks named basil, roughly, “royal plant” or “king plant” because of its robust, powerful aroma and flavour.
That same strength of flavour has been inspiring diverse cultures for millennia; scholars suggest it may have first been cultivated in India around 5000 years ago. The ancient Egyptians used the herb in their embalming agents. Ancient Roman scholar Pliny the Elder wrote that basil seeds were a potent aphrodisiac. In the Middle Ages, basil was a key component for casting out demons, according to this whacky alternative history site.
All of this goes to show the versatility and power of basil. Today though it’s best known for its key role in dishes across the world, from sauces to pastries and cocktails.
Genovese: Your basic spaghetti/pesto/spicy-ah-meatball basil
Let’s start with the basil that probably comes to mind when you think of your favourite Italian restaurant, aka, Genovese basil. It’s often called sweet basil, although technically “sweet basil” (Ocimum basilicum) is the general category under which most of the culinary basils fall. But when the vendor at the farmer’s market tells you about “sweet basil”, she probably means the one with the broad, glossy green leaves that you find in spaghetti, pizza and pesto.
Genovese basil is relatively mild, fresh and slightly sweet. Stewing, baking or drying it will kill its flavour, so don’t try unless you really know what you’re doing. Instead, use it to give vibrancy and character to a fresh salad. You can also grind it into olive oil for a pesto or a tangy vinaigrette, or sprinkle it on the top of your lasagne just before the cheese melts for a delicious twist.
Thai basil: The queen of the East
Now we get into Thai basil. A variety of sweet basil, “Thai basil” is also a category of sweet basils, whose varieties have varieties of their own which also have their own varieties. But when people say “Thai basil” they usually mean either horapha (to use the Thai name for the taxonomical thyrsiflorum variant of sweet basil), or Siam Queen, which is more common in America. Thai basil has thinner, rougher leaves and a purple stem, and it’s tough. It can be cooked in a soup or sautéed with chicken and still hit your mouth with the spicy, minty, anise flavour found in green curry and Vietnamese pho.
But the kind you’re most likely to find in Thai food is Holy basil – it’s probably the best-known variety right across Southeast Asia. The rough-edged, short leaves have a peppery, clove taste – it’s what gives Thai phat kaphrao (flash-fried meat with basil) its unique kick. Holy basil is also used in a variety of Thai curries. Experiment with holy basil in other sorts of dishes, but beware: Its distinctive taste will certainly stand out and could overpower the other flavours.
Other types of basil, and some unique recipes
Lemon basil is not actually a sweet basil at all, but a variety of American basil (or “hoary basil”, Ocimum americanum). These are generally used for medicinal rather than culinary purposes. But lemon basil is one American basil that people actually do eat, and you really have no choice if you live in Laos, where they put lemon basil in all sorts of soups, stews and fish dishes for a lighter, lemony flavour.
Purple ruffles basil looks exactly like it sounds. It’s one of the milder basils in the Italian realm –that is, the ones you don’t want to cook in a wok – but also comes with a bit of the anise spice. If you want your dinner guests to ask you why the pesto isn’t green, this is the perfect basil for you.
Spicy globe basil is probably so-named because it’s tiny, compact leaves bunch together into a sphere-like shape—as if you planted an ancient and noble Persian cultivar into a Chia Pet. These small leaves are loaded with spice and will hold up well in soups and stews, adding a bit of flavour from West Asia and the Indian subcontinent.
There are lots of others. Wikipedia has a pretty good list. By now though you should have at least realised that this basil business is serious. If you think you’re ready to have some fun with it, though, here are some off-beat recipes from around the web:
Blueberry-Basil Muffins, from OhMyVeggies
Strawberry, Basil and Pink Peppercorn Negroni, from Earthy Feast
Basil Parmesan Pesto, from Genius Kitchen
Basil Ice Cream, from NZ Life