Samui Wining & Dining
Hating Basil

The innocent Thai basil has its roots in some strange herbal mythology!


20I’ve often thought that being a plant must sometimes be quite confusing. Take the rose for example. Everybody loves it. Undoubtedly that makes roses everywhere a bit . . . well, smug, I suppose. And then a love-struck lady somewhere goes and pricks her finger on one of the thorns, curses and swears, and rips the poor rose’s petals off. Most unsettling. On the other hand, poison ivy or stinging nettles are a different case. They’re full-tilt bad guys and nobody’s going to fall in love with them. But these are all extreme cases; they’re the heroes and villains of the plant world. Not so with herbs. They’re a pretty dull and shabby bunch on the whole. But there’s one exception. His name is Basil. And he’s most definitely confused.

    Well, actually, there are lots of Basils. A huge and extended family of them, in fact, and that’s confusing enough to begin with. And when it comes to the long Latin names they all have, well, you do not want to go there! Suffice it to say they are all members of the mint family and, as such, have an impressive pedigree. Basil was originally discovered growing in India and the surrounding regions, and first referred to in the various writings of the ancient Greeks, and then again later,

when the Roman armies were on the move. Like many other plants and spices it started to go global in the 16th and 17th centuries, as adventurers and traders spread their discoveries around the world. It was during this period that it landed in Thailand, but it took a back-seat to the fiery chilies which stole the show and were seized upon with relish, so to speak.

      Considering there are over 160 different types of basil worldwide and over 100 of them are grown in Asia, it might come as something of a surprise to realise that only three are to be found in Thailand, and of these just two are widely used in Thai cuisine – but more of this in just a moment.

      With such a long and venerable history it’s not surprising that basil has accumulated a veneer of folklore and myth – hence the poor little chap’s confusion. To begin with, basil usually symbolises hate! Even its name is sinister, and is thought to have originated from the Greek legend of the monstrous Basilisk, one glance at which brought instant death. In keeping with this hostile status, both the Greeks and the Romans believed that the most potent basil could only be grown if the seed was sown while leaping up and down and swearing enthusiastically – this custom is still mirrored in the French language where the expression 'semer le baslic' (literally, ‘sowing basil’) means to rant and rave. Further, in medieval times there was a widespread belief that scorpions were born out of the basil plant.

       And yet, throughout Italy and in rural parts of Turkey, basil symbolises love, and village maidens will wear a sprig of basil in their hair to declare their availability. To further add to the confusion, in India basil is considered to be holy. It is consecrated to the Hindu god, Vishnu, whose wife was said to have taken the form of basil when she came to earth. Hindus thus avoid damaging basil plants, and if this is unavoidable they offer up prayers of forgiveness. This is considered to be the origin of the ‘holy basil’ variety – the kind that is widely used in Thailand.

      As already mentioned, you’ll come across three different kinds of basil while you’re over here. The most common of these is sweet basil (bai horapha). It’s not always easy to distinguish visually between each of the different types but this is the one with purple stems, small greenish purple leaves, and a liquorice or aniseed taste that is quite different from the European type of ‘sweet basil’. Coming in close on the heels of this is holy basil (bai krapao). This tends towards being spicy rather than sweet, and having a reddish cast around the stems and the underside of darker green leaves. The slightly hairy leaves are jagged along the edges and are smaller and more fragile than sweet basil, and will wilt far more quickly. When freshly picked, the aromatic leaves hold a spicy, peppery bite and a delicious combination of basil and mint flavours.

      And the last one in the line-up? It’s the scruffy little hoary basil (bai maengak). This is pale green, almost white, much milder and comparatively tasteless, hence its comparative lack of popularity, although you’ll sometimes find it sprinkled over soups or salads.

      Speaking of usage, exactly where will you find it and how can you spot it? Well the zesty tang of basil seems to find its way into a lot of Thai dishes. It’s used in two ways, firstly as one of the ingredients which helps the Thai aim of balancing the flavours of sweet, sour, spicy, salty and bitter – such as in the very popular green and red curries, for instance, where the milder sweet basil is used. And then you’ll find that there are also dozens of dishes which feature basil as a star in its own right: basil chicken in coconut sauce, basil stir-fried snapper, chicken with basil, curried fried rice with basil; the list is endless. (You can easily determine its presence in any dish as, apart from the tangy taste, it’s moist and limp when cooked and just loves to drape itself inaccessibly over your back molars!)

      But for the ultimate Thai basil experience you really have to go for one of the pad krapao dishes. ‘Pad’ means ‘fried’ and ‘krapao’ you know already – the holy basil offshoot of the family. Just have a go at pad krapao gai – stir fried chicken with basil. But be warned; these dishes in their rich and tasty sauce are not for the faint-hearted, and usually come with squadrons of chilies in attendance (although I’ll be the first to declare that none of the delicious flavour is altered by cutting down on the number of chilies used: just ask for ‘pet nit noi’ - a little bit spicy). You’ll probably be immediately branded as a foreigner and a chilie-wimp, but what the heck! It knocks taste-bud spots off pad Thai and is absolutely one Thai basil experience that’s not to be ignored – you won’t hate it in the least!


Rob De Wet


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