Basil can be described as a low growing aromatic perennial herb. It is native to India, Iran and to other tropical regions of Asia. The leaves of this plant used as a seasoning. Fresh basil has a pungent flavor that some describe as a cross between licorice and cloves. It has been key ingredient in Southeast Asian and Mediterranean cuisine. Actually there are many varieties of basil, that which is used in Italian food is typically called sweet basil, as opposed to Thai basil or holy basil, which are used in Asia.
Varieties of Basil
There are more than twelve varieties of basil that are cultivated for culinary purpose. Sweet Basil, and its close relative Genoa Basil are the most familiar varieties. Both produce fragrant, broad, deep green leaves in abundance. Their spiciness is the perfect compliment to ripe red tomatoes and soft cheeses such as fresh mozzarella and brie.
Other varieties of basil range in color from richly ruffled purple to pale mossy green. Each one has a distinctive taste, with its name revealing the underlying tones: Lemon Basil, Cinnamon Basil, Persian Anise Basil. Even their tiny flowers, which appear in swirls on slender spikes that extend high above the plants, are edible. Depending on the type, the flowers are either bright white, pale pink, or a delicate lavender. The flavor of the flower is milder, but similar to the leaves of the same plant. Sprinkle them over salad or pasta for a concentrated flavor and a spark of color that gives any dish a fresh, festive look.
The name basil has been derived from the old Greek word basilikohn, which means royal/king reflecting that ancient culture’s attitudes towards an herb that they held to be very noble and sacred. According to the other etymological background “basil” originates from the Latin word basilicus, meaning dragon.
Legends and Traditions
Some traditions believed it sacred, others that it was dedicated to the Devil. Greeks believed it was an emblem of hatred, Italians that it was appropriate to lovers. In both Greece and Rome there were ancient rituals involving cursing when the herb was planted, which were believed to assist growth. In Moldavia it was a folk superstition that a sprig of basil flowers handed by a girl to a wayward lover would ensure the boy’s fidelity and love.
Basil is much prized in India, where it is known as tulsi (or tulasi) and regarded as sacred to the god Vishnu and the goddess Lakshmi. It is grown in pots near Hindu homes and temples. It is used in cooking and is also believed to help secure children.
The Indian Connection
In India basil is known as tulasi. Tulasi is considered to be Radha (vrinda), Krishna’s eternal sweetheart, and His childhood playground is called Vrindavan. Tulasi is also a firm devotee of Vishnu, who wanted to marry Him. Vishnu assumed the form of Saligrama, the holy stone, and the tulasi is always kept near it.
The tulasi leaf, when eaten, can control thirst, and so was invaluable to weary travellers. Soon, the plant acquired a religious significance, and became essential in worship.
Basil is an excellent source of vitamin K and a very good source of iron, calcium and vitamin A. In addition, basil is a good source of dietary fiber, manganese, magnesium, vitamin C and potassium.
Selection and Storage
Basil is available year-round. One must choose evenly colored leaves with no sign of wilting. Refrigerate basil, wrapped in barely damp paper towels and then in a plastic bag, for up to 4 days. Or store a bunch of basil, stems down, in a glass of water with a plastic bag over the leaves. Refrigerate in this manner for up to a week, changing the water every 2 days.
To preserve fresh basil, wash and dry the leaves and place layers of leaves, then coarse salt, in a container that can be tightly sealed. Alternatively, finely chop the cleaned basil and combine it with a small amount of olive oil or water. Dried basil, though it bears little resemblance in either flavor or aroma to the fresh herb, can be purchased in the spice section of most supermarkets. Store dried basil airtight in a cool, dark place for up to 6 months.