What is basil?
Aromatic, fresh basil scattered over a simple salad of bocconcini and ripe tomato and drizzled with olive oil is a simple yet exotic way to evoke the feeling of summer afternoons. While a favourite among lovers of Italian food, this versatile herb is also excellent in Southeast Asian cuisine, where it adds colour and flavour to curries, soups and noodles.
Native to India, where it has been cultivated for over 5,000 years, basil was introduced to Europe in the 16th century where it was used medicinally and in cooking.
Nowadays, basil is a much loved and popular herb that is found growing in many Australian backyards. It features prominently in Italian dishes, including the brilliant green pesto.
In Australia, fresh basil is sold by variety. The most common types of basil available are sweet, bush and red (opal or purple) basil, although there are more than 40 other varieties.
Sweet basil has large, wide, shiny, green leaves and a strong, sweet smell. Bush basil has smaller leaves and a milder flavour. Red basil (Ocinum basilicum purpurascens) has dark-purple, shiny, medium-sized leaves.
Other varieties include Holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum), popular in Asian cuisines, which has small, green, hairy leaves with a distinctive clove-like smell. Lemon basil (Ocinum x citriodorum) is used extensively in Arabic, Indonesian, Persian and Thai cooking. It has a strong, fragrant lemon smell and narrow green leaves. Thai (or Asian) basil (Ocinum basilicum var. thyrsiflora) is a tropical variety of sweet basil and has purple stems, small, narrow, spear-like green leaves and a distinctive aniseed smell.
Why basil is good to eat
- Basil is a good source of vitamins A (important for growth and development and the maintenance of your immune system) and K (important for helping your blood to clot).
- It also contains minerals such as potassium (which helps to regulate blood pressure), manganese (involved in the regulation of brain and nerve function) and magnesium (involved in the regulation of muscle, heart and nerve function and keeping bones strong).
- Basil contains dietary fibre, which is important for a healthy bowel.
- Energy – 100 g of basil supplies 94 kJ.
How is it grown and harvested?
Sweet basil plants, a popular variety in Australia, are very sensitive to the cold and grow best in hot, dry conditions. The plant can grow 30–130 cm tall. It has light-green, silky leaves that are 3–11 cm long and 1–6 cm wide.
Once small white flowers appear on the stem, it becomes woody and does not produce any more leaves. Pinching off the flowers before they fully mature can prevent this from happening and promotes further leaf growth.
If you allow the plant to flower, it may produce pods that contain small black seeds that can be saved and planted the following year.
Basil plants grow best outdoors, but they can also be successfully grown indoors in a pot.
Choose basil with fresh-looking leaves and stems. Avoid basil with yellow, black, wilted or damaged leaves. Fresh basil is usually sold with the roots attached.
How to store and keep basil
Store fresh basil at room temperature with the roots in water. You can also store it wrapped in damp paper towels in a sealed plastic bag in the crisper section of your fridge. It will last for three to five days when stored this way.
How to use
- Make a classic pesto sauce – blend basil, oil, pine nuts (walnuts also work), salt and pepper, then mix in grated parmesan cheese and stir into hot spaghetti.
- Add to a simple tart – layer cooked brown onions and sliced tomatoes on puff pastry sheets, add crumbled feta cheese, then top with basil and bake until the pastry is golden.
- Enjoy basil-crusted fish – blend basil, breadcrumbs, grated parmesan cheese, lemon rind and oil, then slather onto salmon and bake before serving with roasted cherry tomatoes, salad leaves and a wedge of lemon.
- Serve an Italian-inspired salad – mix torn basil leaves with cherry or yellow pear tomatoes, black olives and bocconcini, then tip onto a pile of spinach leaves and dress with olive oil, a grind of pepper and a splash of red wine vinegar.
- Make an easy entrée – coat prawns in cayenne pepper and turmeric and toss in a wok with cubes of mango, sliced green onions and finely chopped basil, then serve with aromatic jasmine rice.
This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by:
Better Health Channel
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