Thai Basil

Thai Holy Basil
aka, Kha Phrao
or, Horapa

"Oh, better no doubt is a dinner of herbs,
When season'd with love, which no rancour disturbs."

-Edward Bulwer-Lytton

My beautiful Buddhist step-mom was Thai & a great cook who'd get her spices straight from Thailand because some of them weren't available in Seattle, not even in our Chinatown stores.

Thai BasilMy whole life since those days of youth, I had this vaguely licorice-cinnamon-curry-like flash-memory of the best meals I've ever eaten. I experimented with sundry Asian spices trying to locate that scent & flavor associated, deep in my memory, with my beloved Thai mother.

Basic to her cookery was Thai basil (Ocimum basilicum var thyriflorum). My mom Lumchuan was a vegetarian like myself. She cooked separate meals for my dad then made fun of him for all the meat he ate. He'd say a big diet of rice & noodles was fattening, & Lumchuan would point at his big potbelly compared to her firm stomach.

Though Thai basil is greatly famed as meat condiment, I remembered the flavor most strongly from pad thai noodles, fried rice, & especially a thrilling "vegetarian barbecue" dish which Lumchuan made for her & me.

Thai BasilIt wasn't barbecue at all but a large soupy pot with a lot of heavily lemongrassed & basil-curried veggies with whole hardboiled eggs added. The marinated boiled eggs absorbed the wondrous spices & were like heaven to my palate. Lumchuan called it "barbecue" because it was a typical picnic item with everyone eating straight from the communal pot, farm-girl style.

The main spice flavor was a combination dominated by Thai Holy basil ("Kha phrao" or "Horapa") mixed with another species of basil best known as Tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum) which has a very extensive mythology, greatly sacred in Hindu religion, & a smidgen of star anise which heightens the licorice element of the basil itself.

The flavor achieved with these spieces whether fresh or dried, powdered, and co-mingled really is magical, & can be used instead of Indian curry or Chinese five-spice in any dish that calls for those. As a fresh herb of leaves straight from the garden, Thai basil is great in just about anything that's fried, baked, boiled, or even raw in salads.

Thai BasilI adapted Lumchuan's spice choices to a borsch which is the best ever, a kind of Southeast Asian Jewish hybrid. The sassafrassy Thai Holy basil flavor is heightened by the addition of a cinnamon stick, whole cloves, & whole star-anise in a metal tea-ball so that the woody bits are easily discarded to the compost before serving the finished borsch.

Anyone with a mom who didn't cook all that much & so grew up with borsch out of a jar for Passover just hates the crap, but if you make it from scratch it's wonderful, & if you add a Thai spice array it's amazing.

Because I like this basil as a dominant flavor in many things, I plant lots of it, some in pots, some in the garden proper. They like consistent moisture in rich well-drained soil, & a great deal of warmth & sunlight. They will increase production over a longer period if placed in a tiny hothouse enclosure such as might already be built for tomatoes; the tomatoes can easily share space with a favorite basil.

Thai Holy Basil can also be a straight-out ornamental annual because of its attractive pointed green foliage on purple stems plus purple-flushed leaves for the present cultivar. And it is especially appealing for its mid-summer to mid-autumn flowers.

These are pinched off before fully developing for sake of maximum leaf development, but at any point can be permitted to flower. The blooms are like silver-dollar-sized tussy-mussies or redolent miniature bouquets of purple florets, rather than the flower-spikes produced by other oreganos.

Thai BasilAt some point in autumn the basils begin to get rangy & it's best to harvest the rest of it before it begins a winter disappearing act. Leaves & equally edible flowers can be frozen in sandwich or snack-baggies for use throughout winter.

With each small well-sealed baggy containing enough leaves for one round of cooking, a bag of frozen leaves can be crunched up fresh in the bag while still frozen & brittle, not crumbled until immediately before use.

According to herbal belief, a fresh dessert of Thai basil & crushed pineapple functions as an aphrodesiac. Who knows, anything that tasty just might make everyone horny. And in many other cultures, various basils have been regarded as "the herb of love."

Its mythology is not as rich as for tulsi basil (for which it is sometimes confused), but it is said to share with tulsi an ability to convey good fortune to the user while protecting from evil spirits. If a leaf is placed in one's pocket, it will cause bot or money to enter one's pocket soon thereafter.


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