By Hwaa Irfan
As summer draws to a close, one of the herbs that we like to add to our cooking is in season. We might not even be aware as to when it is in season or not because of the supply and demand of food today, but it is worth noting, especially if one wants to buy it fresh! Basil is popular in Italian, Asian, Iranian, and Middle Eastern cooking. It usually added to what is cooking at the last moment, as too much cooking destroys the flavor. There are many varieties of basil, for instance Italian cooking uses the sweet variety in recipes like pesto. Fresh or dried basil is used in the traditional soups, and white meats in Chinese cuisine
Native to Iran, and India, it migrated from India to Europe in the 16th century with much help from the spice traders. In Western Europe, at one point, it was believed to belong to the devil, but Orthodox Greek churches used basil to prepare their holy water, and in Elizabethan times, Sweet Basil was used for colds, and to clear the brain. In India, basil is sacred to the Hindus, and is used to protect the spirit of family members.
Known in English as Common Basil, Sweet Basil, and St. Joseph’s Wort, basil belongs to the mint family (Lamiaceae). The French call it basilic, In German it is basilienkraut, in India, tulsi, and in Spanish it is called albahaca. With a preference for hot, dry conditions, basil bush (Ocymum Minumum), grows as a low bushy plant. The leaves, which we eat as a herb are slightly oval in shape, bearing small white flowers/black-purple leaves in July and August. The common/sweet basil can grow to a height of 3 feet, with grey-green leaves like that of sage. Both basils flourish best in rich soil, but when being cultivated as a herb (dried) the leaves are cut before the plant flowers. When it is being cultivated for its oil (aromatherapy), basil is cut after it blooms. It is cultivated as a herb in France, Egypt, Hungary, Indonesia, Morocco, and the U.S., Greece and Israel; the oil mainly comes from North Africa, Cypress, Seychelles and Europe.
It is worth noting that the medicinal properties of basil differs slightly according to the variety that is being used.
- Pinene (Low in Egyptian-African basil oil)
- Camphene (African blue basil/oil)
- Anethole (Licorice/Anise basil)
- Linalool (Low in Egyptian-African basil oil)
- Phenol (low amount present in French basil (Ocimum basilicum)
- Ether (high amount in French basil)
- Methyl chavicol or estragole (Egyptian-African basil oil) under review as a possible carcinogen
- Methyl cinnamate (Bulgarian or cinnamon basil oil)
- Eugenol (Low in Egyptian-African basil oil)
The beta-caryophyllene present in basil acts as an anti-inflammatory in diseases of the bowel, and in arthritis. In a study by P Suppakul et al, looking at implications of having basil present in food packaging, the presence of basil demonstrated antimicrobial activity against bacteria, yeast and mold. One can bear this in mind in terms of keeping foods in the refrigerator. An Iranian study by Jamal Javanmardi et al, found the phenols present in the leaves and the flowers of basil serve as a good genetic source of phenolic acid having good potential for the improvement of other crops.
In Ayurvedic (India) and Siddha (Tamil) medicine Ocimum canum is the variety of basil employed.
The smell of oil of basil, as used in aromatherapy awakens the mind, ease sinus congestion, and cools fevers. The therapeutic qualities include the following:
Oil of basil relieves stress related headaches, migraines and allergies. It is used to clear the mind and relieve intellectual fatigue, while giving clarity and mental strength. As an emmenagogue it helps to balance the menses, and correct scanty periods.
- Vitamin E (Alpha Tocopherol),
- Riboflavin and Niacin
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin K
- Vitamin B6
As the price of food becomes increasingly ridiculous, herbs are worth reconsidering from a nutritional point of view. It is possible to grow it one’s self. Fresh basil can be kept in the refrigerator for a few days. If one wants to keep it longer, try blanching it quickly before storing it in the freezer.
In W. Africa the variety grown is Ocimum Viride which possesses a strong febrifuge therapeutic quality making it suitable for fevers. A decoction is mde and drunk as a tea as a remedy for fevers.
The seeds can be soaked in water until they become gelatinous, and like this the seeds known as sabza, falooda, selasih in certain Asian countries Like Malaysia and Vietnam before adding the seeds to drinks and desserts. The Ocimum canum variety and Ocimum gratissimum are used in India for colds, and the Ocimum crispum in Japan is also used as a remedy for colds. A decoction is made from the Ocimum Americana variety in the Caribbean for respiratory problems, and the Ocimum basilicum variety was used traditionally to keep away mosquitoes, in a bath to cleanse the system from poisoning, as a tea for cold remedies, and to detoxify the liver.
Bush Basil (Ocymum Minumum) http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/b/basbus17.html
Basil, Sweet (Ocymum Basilium) http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/b/basswe18.html
Honeychurch, P. “Caribbean Wild Plants and their Uses” Macmillan Publishers, U.K. 1989.
Javanmardi, J. et al. Chemical Characterization of Basil (Ocimum basilicum L.) Found in Local Accessions and Used in Traditional Medicines in Iran http://lamar.colostate.edu/~jvivanco/papers/JAFC/2002a.pdf
McVicar, J. “Jekka’s Complete Herb Book” Kyle Cathie Ltd., U.K. 1994.
Simon, J.E. “Ocimum – “Basil, Bush Basil, Sweet Basil, Tulsi” http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/CropFactSheets/basil.html
Suppakul, P, et al “Antimcrobial Properties of Basil and Its Possible Application in Food Packaging” http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/jf021038t