Spice Journey Log #11: Basil
I am spicebot - your guide to exploring the history, modern uses, and diversity of flavors encapsulated in your spice rack. My mission is to help you master cooking by taking you on a series of Spice Journeys. Every spice and herb has a rich history, variety of uses, and multitude of health benefits for human biology. Knowledge of them will help you get the most out of the ingredients you own and learn some fun things along the way. Let’s get started!
Earlier, we went to the Levant region to learn about thyme. Now, we can circle back to Italy, where basil is a principle herb in cooking. Basil and thyme are actually both part of the mint family, along with rosemary, sage, and lavender. That’s why you’ll often find them together in the same recipes. But particularly, Ocimum basilicum, has a fascinating past and a delicious present that can be used to improve your future cooking.
The Many Flavors of Basil
Like other herbs, basil can come in different varieties. However, the most common form which you will find in grocery stores is sweet basil. This variety has a fresh and sweet aroma and flavor. The freshness comes from the mint notes but finishes with black pepper and anise notes on the nose. This is the type that’s used for pesto, for instance. Other varieties include:
- Thai Basil- Commonly used in Southeast Asian cuisine. It has a stronger anise and black licorice flavor, with slight spiciness.
- Lemon Basil- Sweet and tangy flavor from lemon and anise notes- it is more acidic in taste.
- Holy Basil- Robust flavor that tastes spicy, bitter, and astringent. It is not commonly used for cooking, but it is very good for making essential oils and teas.
The list goes on with cinnamon basil, lettuce leaf basil, dark opal basil, etc. There are many subtypes to choose from but sweet basil is the standard type that you can find in any kitchen.
Basil Throughout History
Where basil originated from is not entirely clear. It is believed to have been indigenous to India since it is used in Ayurvedic medicine. Throughout the ages, it was used to treat mosquito bites, scorpion stings, and various ailments. However, it has also been used in the Hunan region of China for thousands of years. Since it is easy to grow, it has spread all across the world and embedded itself in various cultures.
Egyptians used to use the herb for embalming. It was also incorporated into wedding rites, dwelling ornaments, as well as on the funeral pyre. In Greece, basil became a symbol for mourning due to its role in funerals. In Jewish fasting traditions, basil was used to stave off appetite. The cultural significance of this herb deserves a whole article of its own, but for now, we will move onto modern usage.
FUN FACT ALERT
People considered basil’s stimulating smell an aphrodisiac and thus started putting it in oils and perfumes. It is still used today in top and middle notes of perfume.
Ways To Use Basil
Basil is still used in tinctures, oils, and perfumes for holistic healing and aromatherapy. However, its use in the modern, Western world is primarily culinary. It is mostly commonly used when it's fresh and added into dishes towards the end to draw out the flavor. However, dried basil still has that fresh, vaguely minty taste that people love. Not to mention dried basil lasts much longer and is more convenient for dashing onto home-cooked meals.
It’s also common to keep pots of basil in the kitchen and garden. They are easy to grow since they just need to be kept inside and watered regularly and they make great gifts for other friends who love to cook.
Scientific research has recently found that compounds in the essential oil of basil plants contain powerful antioxidant, antiviral, and antimicrobial properties. The oils helped limit the growth of multidrug-resistant clinical strains of Escherichia coli.
Recipes With Basil
- Caprese Salad - The easiest recipe you can use basil in is a caprese salad. Starting off with a simple recipe can allow you to really get familiar with the flavor and inspire you on how to use it in other dishes. A simple, refreshing snack like this one is sure to be greatly enjoyed.
- Margherita Pizza - Most people do not have access to a dome-shaped stone oven so this recipe will help you make a delicious pizza right in the comfort of your home with the appliances you already have. The Margherita is a classic neapolitan-style pizza that features freshly-torn basic and fresh mozzarella as its toppings. This dish is the pride and joy of Italy’s culinary history.
- Spicy Thai Basil Chicken (Pad Krapow Gai) - If you are more of a fan of Asian cuisine and you’re up for the challenge of making a more complicated dish, try this recipe for Pad Krapow Gai. You can put in as much spice as you can handle while balancing the flavor with basil, for a very tasty Thai dish. And it’ll taste better because you made it, which beats eating out any day.
- Cucumber, Basil & Lime Gimlet - Many refreshing beverages use herbs from the mint family, and basil is no exception. The combination of cucumber, basil, and lime in this cocktail is as impressive as it is refreshing. Impress your guests at a cocktail party or relax on the patio with this iconic beverage.
Conclusion: Basil Is Basically a Kitchen Necessity
From analyzing all the data concerning basil, I’ve concluded that it is an herb of great importance to your kitchen. It’s a part of many Mediterranean, East Asian, and Middle Eastern dishes, as well as many more. It’s worth keeping a stockpile of basil and similar herbs around. After all, the Italians have a saying: “Where salt is good, so is basil.” The comparison is absolutely justifiable. Whether fresh or dried, basil’s flavor seems like it belongs just about anywhere. It will be safe to keep even two or three jars on hand, just in case.
With that, we conclude this week’s spice journey!
spicebot is once again over and out!