Is it bay-zil or bah-zil? Is it from Asia or Africa? And can breathing it in really make scorpions grow in your brain, ladies? To the last question, a resounding “no” and to the first, I say it’s up to you. As to the origins, that’s a bit of mystery, but the history of basil is almost as interesting as the many varieties available and the dishes that call for them.
Even the etymology is imprecise…basileus is a Greek word meaning “king” but basil also may be from the Latin basilisk, which somewhat explains why Europeans a few centuries ago were worried that basil leaves under pots turned in scorpions. Who knew?
Sources are unsure, but basil appears to have been grown and cultivated in both Africa and India for centuries. In fact, in India where it’s known as tulsi, the plant is considered holy; a protecting spirit of the family. The plant was brought to Europe in the 1500s from India and then to the Americas in the 1700s.
What really fascinates me is how many cultures employ basil liberally in their native dishes–I can’t imagine Thai or Italian cooking without basil! Not only pesto and other Mediterranean dishes, but basil is used in its native Africa and Asia as well as here in the Americas.
In addition to using basil to flavor your turtle soup (thanks, English) or drinking it as a tea (here’s to you, India), apparently it also has medicinal properties as a natural anti-bacterial agent.
How it grows:
Prefers 6-8 hours of sun, temperatures above freezing. A year-round crop in the tropics (sigh). Numerous varieties and cultivars. All are bush-like and usually about 1-2 feet tall, though some varieties are naturally less than a foot tall. If I can grow basil, you can too, trust me. But, if bugs get to yours or you forget a week of watering, you can always stop by the market to get some from local farmers like Smith Farms Greenhouse, Elam Gardens and Guilford College Farm for a basil fix!
How to preserve it:
Dried is ok, but rather bland and misses the exciting brightness of fresh basil. Freezing is preferred. I recommend placing leaves either whole or chiffonaded (pretty word for “nicely sliced into tiny strips”) into an ice tray and pouring just enough water to submerge them completely. Once your little “basil-cicles” are completely frozen, you can store them into a container to use for brightening a dinner on a cold winter day. Put the cubes directly into your sauces and soups.
If the delicious taste isn’t enough, basil, like many other green-leafed herbs and veggies, is chock-full of vitamin K, which gives our blood the ability to clot properly. According to this website it also has manganese, vitamin A and even anti-inflammatory compounds.
Check out Mod Meals on Mendenhall’s enthusiastic basil post here.