Basil

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Basil or Ocimum Basilicum is a strongly aromatic and pungent herb prized for its culinary as well as medicinal uses. The name basil may be derived from the Greek word basilikos meaning 'royal'(so called because only the sovereign (basileous) was allowed to cut it).

Different world cultures use Basil in manifold ways. In India, Basil is considered sacred to two important deities -- Krishna and Vishnu. Most Hindu houses have a Basil plant in the courtyard and is believed to be a reincarnation of the Mother Goddess. In countries as geographically diverse as Thailand and Italy, Basil lends its unique flavour to regional cuisines.

Contents

Why should I be aware of it?

Basil is easily available, either fresh and dried, all over the world. It is an asset to any herbal medicine cabinet for it has many medicinal benefits. Here are some --

  • Basil or Tulsi is known to have disinfecting qualities and is used in very many home remedies.
  • A tea brewed from the leaves of the holy basil or Tulsi is a widely used household remedy for cold and coughs.
  • Basil simmered in water is a wonderful remedy for reducing fever.

Basil imparts a pungent flavour to oriental stir fries, salads as well as to pastas, pizzas and casseroles.

The aromatic herb also possesses disinfectant and pest repellent qualities.

Did you know?

  • The Romans believed that one had to be abusive and quarrelsome while planting basil so that it would grow well.
  • In 1700s in America, one could be denounced as a practitioner of witchcraft if one was found in possession of a basil plant.
  • There is an old superstition that if a sprig of Basil were left under a pot it would in time turn into a scorpion. Superstition went so far as to affirm that even smelling the plant might bring a scorpion into the brain.
  • A basil leaf placed on the breast of a Hindu before his cremation ensures his easy passage to paradise.

All about basil

Culinary usage

There are several varieties of basil used in cooking. The leaves are used both fresh and dried (though fresh is infinitely more desirable) as a flavouring in all courses of a meal. Basil is notably added in sauces, soups, omelettes, stews, salads and salad dressings, added to vegetables, used to stuff and flavour poultry, aromatise vinegar, add fragrance to confectionery products, and to the liqueur chartreuse.

Basil is a well known and distinctive flavour in Italian, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Taiwanese and Laotian cuisines. It may be noted that each cuisine uses a different variety. For example, while Italian cuisine famously uses the broad, dark leaved Genovese Basil, the Thais largely use what they call “Horapha”, (Ocimum basilicum var. thyrsiflorum or ‘Siam Queen’)

Internationally, Italian food is most commonly associated with the flavour of basil and tomatoes. Infact, the flavour of basil marries extremely well with that of tomatoes especeially the fleshy Roma variety. Genovese pesto sauce is an emulsion of garlic, basil, pine-nuts, parmesan cheese and superior quality extra virgin olive oil. A similiar French sauce, Pistou from Provence is used to flavour the traditional local vermicelli soup.

Preservation and storage

Basil is available dried, preserved in oil, or fresh. While drying basil does lessen its aroma, preservation in oil, especially olive oil, retains the taste and favour of the leaf.

Varieties

There are several varieties, differing in the size, shape, odour and colour of the leaves. Some common basil varieties are listed below.

Variety Growing Pattern Where to plant i.e. sun or shade Physical Characteristics Plantation Density Uses and History
Sweetbush Annual Sun Ht. 24" Space 18" Uses: Sweetbush basil has smooth green leaves and is used in pesto, tomato sauces, salads and any dish that would benefit from its clove-like taste.
“African Blue”

"African blue"

Tender perennial Sun Ht. 2-3’ Space 2’ Uses: Decorative and culinary. African blue basil has an attractive purplish-blue cast, strong growth habit and sweet camphor scent. The leaf veins, flower spikes and stems are purple while the rest is green.
"Anise (Persian)" Annual Sun Ht. 18" Space 24" Uses: Fragrances, culinary. Anise Basil is an ancient basil, native to Persia, with a long history of medicinal and preservative uses. The foliage has a purplish cast, and the flavour leans towards the anise end of the basil spectrum. The Oriental basils were placed in amulets to protect the body and used as a disinfectant against malaria.
"Camphor” Annual Sun Ht. 5’ Space 30" Uses: Medicinal. A native of East Africa with strong camphor odour. Tea made from Camphor Basil is said to alleviate stomach aches and help colds. Very stately plant in the herb garden, reaching 5’ in height. Too strong a flavour for culinary use.
"Cinnamon" Annual Sun Ht. 24" Space 18" Uses: A native of India, cinnamon basil found its way to Europe in the 16th century, where it was valued medicinally. It has a natural affinity for tomatoes and seems to belong with salads, either fresh or in oils or vinegars. Cinnamon basil combines the traditional clove flavour of basil with cinnamon for a unique, spicy taste.
"Dark Opal" Annual Sun Ht. 18" Space 18" Uses: This spectacular cultivar was developed at the University of Connecticut in the 1950’s and it is grown not only for its culinary value, but for its intense decorative effect. The deep purple, sometimes mottled leaves make a very dramatic contrast with green leaved plants. Dark Opal Basil lends colour as well as flavour to vinegar.
"Dwarf Dark Opal"

Minimum Purpurascens

Annual – Sun. Good

pot plant.

Ht. 12" Space 8 Uses: This is a small-leaved variety of Dark Opal Basil. Sensational border plant forming dark purple clumps. Basil grown in a pot on a windowsill repels flies and the crushed leaves are said to relieve the pain of bee and scorpion stings. Steep the leaves in vinegar for a lavender-coloured, clove tasting salad dressing.
"Dwarf – Small Leaf" Annual Sun Ht. 12" Space 12" Uses: Dwarf Basil (Small Leaf) is a small leaf, bush-type variety, perfect for pots or containers. Since its introduction to Europe in the 16th century, basil has been the subject of very intense medical controversy. Culpepper said, "This is the herb which all authors are together by the ears about, and rail at one another like lawyers." As for its value in cooking, there is no argument. It combines naturally with any tomato dish and its clove-like flavour enhances both Italian and Oriental cuisine.
"Lemon-Sweet Dani" Annual Sun Ht. 18" Space 12" Uses: Lemon Basil is high in essential oil and citral content. Developed by Dr. Jim Simon at Purdue University. Has small leaves and a delightful lemony fragrance that forms a base for some lemon potpourri. It makes a fresh, light tea and is a traditional seasoning in pea soup. In the Orient, basil is used to relieve stomach spasms, kidney ailments, and tea from leaves is said to calm nerves
“ Lettuce Leaf"

Crispum’

Annual Sun Ht. 24" Space 24" Uses: Lettuce Leaf Basil so called for its large, wrinkled leaves. A highly productive variety which insures a continuous supply of this clove flavoured herb for the entire season. Chop the leaves in a blender with a small amount of water and freeze in ice cube trays for winter use. The Romans believed that railing and abuse were necessary in sowing basil in order for it to prosper. In the early days of this country (America), possession of a basil plant was sufficient proof of witchcraft.
"Licorice" Annual Sun Ht. 24" Space 18" Uses: Licorice Basil tends more toward the anise end. Its fragrance is useful in potpourri and it adds a sweetish taste to tomato sauce. Basil has a varied history in folklore. In Roman times it was said to breed scorpions, to cure their stings, or to incite romantic passion. In Crete, it symbolized love washed with tears.
"Lime" Annual Sun Ht. 18" Space 12" Uses: Lime Basil – Wonderful lime-scented version of Lemon Basil from Thailand. Ideal for potpourri and Thai cooking. Compact bush habit. It makes a fresh, light tea and is a traditional seasoning in pea soup. In the Orient, basil is used to relieve stomach spasms, kidney ailments, and tea from leaves is said to calm nerves.
"Napoletano" Annual Sun Ht. 24" Space 24" Uses: Napoletano Basil is an arresting basil from Southern Italy with very large, uniquely rounded and deeply crinkled leaves. The softly draped, leafy plants form a dense heavy canopy that is almost tropical in appearance. Luxuriant leaves are a light green colour, and have a sweet fragrance and mellow rich flavour. Great for pasta or rice, and excellent over freshly picked tomatoes
"Perfume" Annual Sun Ht. 24" Space 18" Uses: Perfume Basil – The long and pointed leaves of Genoa basil are thus distinguished by their intense, almost perfumed flavour, which is quite haunting to the taste. It may be used in a variety of ways including salad dressings and with chicken or fish.
"Peruvian" Annual Sun Ht. 18" Space 15" Uses: As a condiment in Peru.

Peruvian Basil is a Latin American basil with a bitter-sweet fragrance and taste. Basil is very tender and should not be planted outside until all danger of frost is past. It was also thought to increase sympathy between human beings.

"Purple Ruffles"

Purple Ruffles’

Annual Sun Ht. 16" Space 18" Uses: Purple Ruffles Basil is one of the All-American Selection Winners in 1985. Large heavily ruffled and fringed dark purple leaves and pinkish-purple flowers, make this a striking new addition to the herb garden or flower border. This strain has deteriorated from its original award-winning all purple form; up to 25% of leaf area is now green.
"Rubin" Annual Sun Ht. 18" Space 12" Uses: Rubin Basil – A significant improvement over Dark Opal variety. Leaves nearly purple-bronze, very little green. Fine flavours and aroma. The deep purple sometimes mottled leaves, make a dramatic contrast with green leaved plants. Rubin basil lends colour as well as flavour to vinegar.
"Sacred"

sanctum

Annual Sun Ht. 30" Space 24" Uses: Sacred Basil is called Tulasi (or Tulsi) in India and Malaysia. This plant is venerated by the Hindus as a holy herb. Its aroma is extremely pungent and the dried leaves will retain their sweet and fruity scent for years. Sacred basil is used as a fixative in potpourri and as a disinfectant against malaria.
"Spice" Annual Sun Ht. 24" Space 18" Uses: Spice Basil is a close relative of the sacred basil of the Hindus. It is very pungent, adding a fruity scent to its natural clove/anise base. The scent of spice basil is extremely long-lasting and is used as a fixative in potpourri. Try it in fruit salad and tea and dry some leaves for drawer sachets which will repel moths.
"Spicy Globe"

"Spicy Globe"

Annual

Excellent pot plant

Sun Ht. 12" Space 8" Uses: Spicy Globe Basil – Best variety of dwarf basil for pot plants. A very strong grower for a dwarf plant – grows more uniform than other bush varieties.
"Sweet Fine" Annual Sun Ht. 24" Space 18" Uses: Sweet Fine Basil is a tall, small leaved variety of sweet basil sometimes called the ‘French basil’. Use it for pesto, tomato dishes and sauces, salads and vinegars. The clove/anise taste of basil makes it a unique seasoning herb and it has a long medicinal history, used for stomach cramps, kidney ailments, nervous disorders and beestings. Keep flowers pinched off to insure continuous leaf production.
"Sweet Thai" ‘Siam Queen’ Annual Sun Ht. 18" Space 18" Uses: Sweet Thai ‘Siam Queen’ Basil – All American winner for 1997. Major improvement on standard variety. A very regal looking plant. Spicy anise-liquorice aroma and flavour. "Hun Que" in Vietnam. Small green leaves, purple stems and blossoms, delicate and attractive. This is a true strain used in Vietnamese and Thai cooking including "pho", a famous beef or chicken noodle soup.

Basil and health

The servants of Yama do not come to this house in the vicinity of which there is a grove of Tulsi, due to the house having the nature of a holy place. O brahmana, the Tulsi grove is auspicious and removes all sins. She (the Tulsi plant) was formerly planted by Vishnu for the good of the worlds. The leaf and the flower of the Tulsi are valued in all good works. There is the proximity of Vishnu, where there is a Tulsi grove. Brahma also (lives) there, and also Lakshmi with all the hosts of gods. (Padma Purana IV. 22. 2)

The essential oils of basil extracted from the leaves is also used as a flavouring. Apart from food it is also used by the dental care industry, cosmetic and the perfume industry.

Basil's therapeutic properties are as a result of phyto-chemicals. These phyto chemicals notably oleoresin are antioxidants, anti-bacterial and anti-viral agents and strengthen the immune system.

The therapeutic uses of basil are many. It is brewed as an infusion and as teas and used to treat colds, coughs, fevers, stomach aches and cramps, vomiting, constipation, as a relaxant for nervous hysteria and for kidney and urinary complaints. Basil also apparently eases nausea.

Basil acts as an expectorant and clears the throat and lungs. The juice of the leaves can be used to treat ear aches and fungal infections.

It is also used as an insecticide and as a disinfectant.

What can I do about it?

How to dry it

Here are some tips for drying basil:

  • Don't tie basil stalks together or hang them to dry as you might other herbs.
  • Pinch or snip leaves from the stems and place them on a screen or absorbent towel.
  • Stir daily and allow to dry until crackly.
  • Store in an airtight container.

How to freeze it

To freeze basil leaves, follow these steps:

  • Clip the leaves from the stems and rinse.
  • Spread them on a counter to air-dry for 30 minutes.
  • Loosely layer leaves in a storage bag and freeze.

Here is how one can freeze pureed basil:

  • Place fresh cut leaves in a blender or food processor.
  • Process for a few seconds to coarsely chop the leaves.
  • Add enough water to form a slush and process again.
  • Pour this liquid into ice cube trays and freeze.
  • Once frozen, pop the cubes out of the trays and store them in a freezer container for later use.

References

  • The Larousse Gastronomique
  • The Book of Ingredients,Philip Dowell and Adrian Bailey; Penguin/ Mermaid Books 1993
  • Basil
  • Curry Sutra
  • Herb Portal
  • Galaxy Gardens

See Also