Anyone with minimum knowledge about cooking must have heard about basil. It is a famous spice, well known for its flavor and the ability to enhance the taste of various foods.
Basil is native to India. Its origin dates back 4000 years. It was brought to Europe by Alexander the Great’s armies from Hindus, who considered it a sacred plant. The Latin word “basilicum” comes from the Greek term “basileus” meaning “king”. It is said about this plant to have risen in the place where emperors Constantine and Helen discovered the Holy Cross.
Legends and Facts
Many species of herbaceous plants enjoy great respect and special meanings in countries of the Himalayas like India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, South-Eastern Tibet. Amongst them we may find some basil species (Ocimum sanctum, Ocimum basilicum and others) known by the locals as Tulsi or Surasa.
Basil is considered a plant with religious significance and at the same time with phyto therapeutic value not only in this geographical area, but also in Asia Minor and Eastern Europe. Even the ancient people such as the Romans or Greeks worshiped it.
Today believers also go to temples, pagodas and churches with a bunch of basil, being confident that it has a purifying effect. It is used in various Hindu and Buddhist rituals as well as in Orthodox religion. Hindu put a thread of basil in the mouth of the dead to assure their way to Paradise.
Indians believe that basil can be used in food, but only for the three summer months. Its worship as the sacred plant takes place in November or December. Rosary beads are made from the woody part of the plant. Basil is considered an incarnation of the goddess Laksmi, wife of the god Vishnu.
In Christian religious practice, this plant is used for water consecration during the celebration of the Baptism of Jesus.
As for its significance, the Romans and later the Italians considered it the plant of love and fertility, its blossoming being celebrated by festivities and rituals. In Eastern cultures, young girls place a thread of basil under their pillow on the Eve of Jesus Baptism celebration day. It is said that this way they will dream about their future spouse.
Flavor and Varieties
Fresh basil leaves have a strong, characteristic flavor which cannot be compared with other spices, although it can very vaguely be found in allspice aroma. Besides the type of Mediterranean basil, there is a whole series of other varieties, many of them hybrids with different flavors.
Indian basil has an intense flavor, somewhat hot. In Thailand you may find a basil variety with a flavor of licorice. We may also smell cultivars with flavor of scented camphor, anise or cinnamon. Mexican basil has a complex flavor, very pleasant, with a slight scent of anise. Other varieties are characterized by lime fragrance.
Basil is a natural remedy to treat and cure various diseases: bronchitis, laryngitis, pharyngitis, flu, intestinal colic, stomach pain, gastric ulcer, urinary infections, migraine, headache, gout.
The infusion prepared from the leaves of basil is an excellent stimulator for appetite and lactation. It has recently been discovered that it regulates blood sugar.
You may treat insect stings, wounds and eczema by applying compresses with basil leaves or tincture.
It can also assure a great intake of iron, calcium, potassium, magnesium and vitamins (A, Group B ) for the body.
The plant was reserved for Greek sovereigns only (basilikon – king) and it ennobled the taste of different dishes from the old days.
Basil is still being seen as “the herbs king” by many gourmet chefs and book authors. Today, it is a typical presence in Mediterranean cuisine, but it also characterizes more exotic culinary areas such as Thai or Vietnamese.
In Mediterranean cuisine, it makes a perfect combination with tomatoes, but also with olive oil, lemon, garlic and onion.
Basil is one of the main ingredients of pesto sauce. It may be used in salads, pasta, eggs, cheese (mozzarella), rice, fish, seafood, poultry, venison, mutton, beef and pork or various vegetables: green beans, cabbage, eggplant, even mayonnaise.
It may enrich the taste of desserts or drinks and liqueurs at the same time. In some areas it is cooked with fresh fruit or added to jams and sauces, usually those of strawberries, raspberries or plums.
Chinese and Taiwanese cuisine uses fresh or dried basil for soups or fried chicken. In the case of cooked dishes, basil is added directly to the plate before being served to keep its flavor.
There are three species of Thai basil and each one is used for different foods.
Thai sweet basil (“horapha”) has a fascinating anise flavor, somewhat similar to tarragon, but more intense. The flavor is lost by cooking.
Thai holy basil (“krapao”) is a little bit hot. It is often used in stir-fry dishes because unlike other varieties of basil it needs high temperatures to develop its flavor.
A third variety of Thai basil, the lemon one (“manglak”) has a lime flavor and is used more as a garnish for fish.
Another exciting variety of basil is basil tree, known in tropical regions of Africa and Asia, which has a strong flavor of cloves, even spicier. Only one or two leaves should be used for a food pot. It is suitable for almost every dish, with or without meat, but the most common use is in meat dishes cooked with red wine.
Whether in America, Asia or Europe basil has been and still is an extraordinary spice with an unique flavor.