Basil in Thai Cuisine
You are probably familiar with the richly fragrant herb Basil since it is commonly used in Mediterranean cuisine. It is, for example, the central ingredient in Pesto, one of Italian cooking’s finest sauces. Basil is also used extensively in cooking here in Thailand and often in dishes with – to our palates at least – surprising mixtures of tastes and flavours.
The first thing to be aware of is that Thai cooking uses three main types of Basil, all with distinctively different qualities.
The Basil you are probably most familiar with is known here as Bai Ho-Ra-Pa or Sweet Basil. This is the Thai for of the basil most commonly used in Mediterranean cuisines and the one you are probably most familiar with. It has a characteristic sweet and dense aroma and a strong, but not overpowering flavour, reminiscent of but distinctly different to aniseed.
The second type of Basil used in Thailand is Thai Holy Basil, Hot Basil or Bai Grapow . This is the key ingredient in the famous Pat Grapow, a fiery stir fry and one of Thailand’s most common and classic dishes. Sometimes as you pass small roadside restaurants you will be engulfed by a cloud of pungent fumes that make you choke and your eyes stream. This is the result of adding hot basil and chillies to a searing hot frying pan of pat grapow. This causes an impressive flash of flames and the characteristic gas cloud. But the end dish is definitely worth the hazardous cooking process. This issue’s featured recipe, clams with chilli paste, makes good use of holy basil.
Bai Mang-Rak is the third type of basil used in Thai kitchens. This is also known as Lemon Basil for its citrus-like flavour. In cooking it is good in soups and with seafood.
The three plants are a little tricky to distinguish from one another as you will see from the photograph. The best way to be sure which is which is to crush one of the leaves between your fingers and check the aroma released, which is always quite distinctive.
Recently, there has been much research into the health benefits conferred by the essential oils found in basil. Scientific studies have established that compounds in basil oil have potent antioxidant, anti-cancer, antiviral, and anti-microbial properties. So as with many herbs there are health as well as taste reasons to add this versatile herb to your recipes and your shopping list.