Know Your Herbs: Basil
Basil doesn’t just dominate the Italian kitchen – it has played an integral role in history and culture around the world. Sweet basil is a must-have culinary staple. Savoury purple basil, citrusy lemon basil, and sweet, licorice-flavoured Thai basil enhance dishes with unique and unexpected touches of flavour. Basil graces virtually every garden because it is simple to grow and pleasing to even the most stubbornly picky taste buds. It is no wonder that this powerful herb’s name is derived from the ancient Greek word for “king,” basileus.
Although it’s commonly referred to as a Mediterranean herb, it originally hails from the spice capital of the world - India. Basil has a strong presence in traditional Southeast Asian cuisine. The Indian basil plant is known by the grandiose name tulsi in Hindu, which translates to “the incomparable one.” It is considered one of the most sacred plants in Hindu religion, the essence of the deity Tulsi, and is thought to improve heath, balance the body, and extend one’s lifespan. Basil has been employed as a detoxifying infusion and nutrient-rich essential oil by Ayurvedic traditional medicine for thousands of years. Many Hindu households grow and tend to a special basil plant as an expression of spiritual cleansing and faith.
Years later, basil spread its territory via trade routes and was readily consumed by the ancient Greeks. There, its reputation transformed; basil became strongly associated with violence and other negative energy. In Greece and Rome, gardeners screamed at their basil seeds and saplings, believing that the dark plant would thrive by absorbing the bad vibes. The more emotive modern-day gardeners amongst us may be guilty of yelling at a slow seed or flimsy sapling out of frustration, but, hey, this might be a good strategy for basil plants.
As it made its way to Europe by the 1500s, the pungent, aromatic basil plant generated folklore and legends at every turn. You could expect to find it in any medieval garden. In Italy, basil was supposed to attract lovers. There is no end to what basil was believed to cure: poison consumption, depression, deafness, anxiety, insanity – you name it, basil could take care of it. More recently, science has been used to verify its very real antibacterial, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties.
Despite its current worldwide distribution, basil is a tropical plant by nature. This means it needs to be grown in rather warm weather, has zero tolerance for frost, and is thirsty enough for daily watering. As long as these critical conditions are met, basil is a breeze to grow. When it is mature enough to harvest, the leaves of the basil plant emit an enticing aroma. This aroma, which has attracted the attention of religions, cultures, and historians for thousands of years, exists thanks to basil’s distinct essential oil composition. As part of the mint family (Lamiaceae), it is closely related to mint, thyme, oregano and lavender – it is no surprise that the essential oils of some basil varieties smell very similar to these close cousins.
While basil may have a long and complicated history, one thing is certain: it is simply delicious.