Lifestyle & Culture

Kitchen Detail: Basil, Si!

Basils, we hardly knew ye. Clockwise from top left, Cardinal Basil, Kapoor Tulsi (Spice Basil), African Blue Basil, and Chinese Sweet Basil.

By Nancy Pollard

After owning one of the best cooking stores in the US for 47 years—La Cuisine: The Cook’s Resource in Alexandria, Virginia—Nancy Pollard writes Kitchen Detail, a blog about food in all its aspects—recipes, film, books, travel, superior sources, and food-related issues.

FOUR YEARS AGO, KD featured a post about guerrilla gardening both in the UK and in our own backyard in Northern Virginia. Kathryn Kellam, one of the Master Gardeners at Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia,  proved to be a great source of information. I learned about garden centers for native plants and also how to resuscitate two sad tree wells near my building.

I am not a gardener; I buy plants. On the other hand, Kellam and Master Gardener Susan Wilhelm have grown more than 20 unusual basils from seed and co-produced a helpful film/lecture (see below) on this herb, which has around 150 varieties! Their discoveries of lesser-known basils and advice on growing them both indoors and out prompted me to replant a few in better-suited conditions, and I reaped some benefits in my summer dishes.

Beyond Pesto

We are not talking Genoese, Thai, or even the frilly and floppy lettuce basil, but rather cultivars such as Lemon Basil, Chinese Sweet Basil, Persian Basil, and African Blue Basil. Kathryn suggested them as a few of her favorite discoveries to search out and grow. Not surprisingly, basils are a member of the mint family and, contrary to other Mediterreanean herbs such as oregano and rosemary, they actually prefer not only hot sun (forget surviving even a moderate cold snap) but also miserable humidity. Kathryn said that the mesclun and mixed green salad bags that we now rely on are so boring that the addition of a few of these different basils will make them much tastier. You can find some of these remarkable basil plants at farmers markets or online.

Lemon Basil image from Wikibpedia

Lemon Basil image from Wikibpedia.

Lemon Basil, used extensively in Laotian cuisine, is believed to be a hybrid of  African Basil and Sweet Basil. As an annual that’s been around for thousands of years; it’s a common addition to Southeast Asian, Arabic, and North African dishes. Records show that it arrived in North American gardens via the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the early part of the 17th century. Its lemon and slight anise flavor shows best when used raw, added just before serving.   Even the flowers, which are white,  give off a light lemon aroma and can be used as an edible garnish. It is highly perishable once cut, and should be used within a day or two at most. Make a light vinaigrette with lemon basil (no mustard) and dress a mozzarella salad or grilled zucchini slices. On the health side, lemon basil is a prodigious source of beta-carotene, which, when converted to Vitamin A, protects against vision loss.

Chinese Sweet Basil image from Florida Curated Seeds website

Chinese Sweet Basil image from Florida Curated Seeds website.

Not as much is known about the origins of Chinese Sweet Basil, but this variety has a very pungent and enticing aroma. The leaves have a lemon-orange flavor. This variety is difficult to find in the US. Unlike some of its more commonly grown cousins, the stems can be used along with the leaves in salads. It grows like wildfire and can produce tender leaves all summer long and, of course, is perfect for hot, humid summers.

Persian Basil from All American Selections website

Persian Basil from All American Selections website.

Persian Basil, above, whose origins are Middle Eastern, was at the top of Kathryn’s list of favorite discoveries. Its leaves are large, and the plants can become almost ornamental bushes, even though it is an annual. It develops flowers later in the fall, so you can benefit from tender leaves longer than you can with Genoese basils. It, too, has a telltale citrus-clove aroma and flavor. Its fall blooms make for nice farewell-to-summer floral arrangements.

. African Basil from Annies Annuals website

African Basil from Annies Annuals website.

African Blue Basil can be a perennial in areas that do not have very cold winters. It was discovered in the late 20th century at a nursery in Ohio, as a cross between purple opal and African camphor basils, and is sterile so propagation has to be done by cuttings. Its flavor is similar to that of  lemon thyme, with a bit more spice. It releases a heady oil that is used in insect repellents and is beloved by mixologists as a flavoring for specialty cocktails.


Holy Basil from Etsy website

Spice Basil from the Etsy website.

Holy Basil or Tulsi has some interesting attributes and confusions as a medicinal and sacred plant in India, particularly for Ayurveda, a traditional medicine system. It is used only for water infusions in Hindu ceremonies and for topical applications. Some holistic health advocates have prescribed it as a treatment for high cholesterol, anxiety, diabetes, and stress, even though there exists no scientific evidence to support these uses. Another basil, from Germany, which we call Spice Basil and has a peppery taste, carries the name of Kapoor Tulsi (a misnomer from the 20th century that has never been corrected). This one has an an intriguing taste and is often used in stir-fried dishes.

Cardinal Basil inmage from Rare Seeds website

Cardinal Basil from the Rare Seeds website.

Living dangerously in my newfound basil world, I found Cardinal Basil, and was advised to put it in a big pot all by itself. With little encouragement, it grows somewhat like a bush, with what was described as “pagoda-like flowers” on the Specialty Produce website. The Israeli company Genesis Seeds developed this particular basil. It is indeed branching out to the perimeters of its pot, and I have used it in some of my Italian and French dishes, where it gives a slightly spicier edge than Genoese basils. I am torn about pinching back the flowers but will discipline myself as the minute the pagodas come out, the leaves lose that enticing flavor.

Here’s that video from Kathryn Kellam and Susan Wilhelm.


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