Nancie McDermott sent me some rare Italian beans and some seeds of Sacred Green Basil (Ocimum sanctum ‘Green’) to grow. Nancie is a fellow southerner who lived abroad from many years. Her book, REAL THAI, remains one of my favorite Asian cookbooks.
She explained to me in the letter that came with the seeds, “There are three kinds of basil used in Thai cooking, plus mint…. Most common, often called Thai basil, is bai horapah (bai means leaf or herb). This has shiny green leaves, usually purple stems,
leaves are flat versus the blowsy texture of big Italian basil leaves, rounded and full. Thai basil is very pointy, and has that lovely anise/licorice quality to it. It’s beloved all over SE Asia and especially in Thailand.
Second most common, is holy basil. Thai name is bai ka-prao or bai gra-prao.
It looks quite different; you would not identify it as a basil at all at first, because its leaves are matte finish, not at all shiny, and they are more oval/rounded tops, rather that the teardrop shape of horapah. Their edges are sort of scallloped or serrated. Flower portions (nubby bits, not much blossom but basilly culsters) are usually evident. Holy basil has a pungent, intense and amazing aroma, quite distinct and almost peppery basilly. It is fragile; once picked it will last only a day or two.
Even in Thailand it is not always available, a specialty item of sorts. They love to stir-fry chopped meat with it, say ground pork or chicken, quickly tossed with fresh or dried chilies, garlic, fish sauce, sugar, soy sauce: meaty, delicious, and heaven over rice.
Because it’s rarely seen and known in the west and because people love the name, the ordinary Thai basil is identified as holy basil fairly often, but that is a big mistake. It’s quite distinct. Stir frying with any basil is quite tasty and good, but when you have this to use, it is especially a treat.
The “holy” is because in Indian Hindu tradition, the same herb plant is sacred, used in ceremony or simply grown and revered. It is never used in cooking and from the response I got once or twice on inquiring, I think the very notion of cooking with it was disturbing and a spiritual faux pas on my part, ah well.
Third basil is bai maeng luk. A powerfully lemony basil, different leaf shape, also fragile, used in a few soups and curries, thrown in at the end. Also rarely seen, but if seen it’s in summertime when local people grow it in gardens; probably too fragile for commercial use.
Mint’s name is bai sal-a-ney. Cilantro isn’t called a bai /leaf herb; it’s called
pahk chee. Pahk is the word for vegetables, perhaps reflecting its common use.”
Here’s the basil in late July, with some heirloom Italian figaro pimientos. The basil has a fragrance unlike any other herb I know, more like an exotic, tropical flower than the Mediterranean herbs. The figaro is one of the sweetest peppers known (no Scoville units!), perfect for eating fresh, for frying, and for pickling. I highly encourage you to grow these luscious peppers, but do so from seed, and keep them well apart from other varieties because peppers are notoriously “promiscuous.”
08/16/07: Sacred Green Basil is indeed an oddity. It’s not even mentioned in Hortus Third, usually a reliable source for information on plants, albeit those cultivated in North America. Its fragrance is so peculiar and intoxicating that I have hesitated to use it in my cooking. I sent some of the plants I grew to Nancie, and she was very excited about cooking her husband’s favorite Thai dish of chicken and basil. Last night I was cooking quail in a very French manner, seared in butter then braised with shallots, and decided against tossing in a few leaves at the last minute, having never worked with it before. I emailed Nancie and she responded:
Your instincts are right on the money. Thais use this particular basil only in last minute infusions of flavor/aroma. Classic is Chicken with holy basil –
oil, garlic/shallots till they smell great, add chopped chicken/pork, toss to break up and start to change color. Stir in fish sauce/soy sauce; sugar, chicken broth,
keep cooking till almost done. Add holy basil and chopped fresh hot green chilies, about 1 T, or chopped dried red chili flakes, about 1 t, toss well.
Add some molasses or dark/sweet chili sauce, toss [and remove from heat.]
There should be lots of flavor, and not much sauce. Serve it over rice, mix it in to season the rice. It is a quick, not so saucey stir-fry rice seasoner. Other use is in clear soup of pumpkin, pumpkin vines, baby corn, zucchini slices, shrimp, and fish sauce and broth, and holy basil at the end…
While visiting family and friends in Charleston, I poured wine at The Wine Shop‘s Friday night tasting. The shop is owned by my dear friend and wine guru Debbie Marlowe, who wrote the wine recommendations for my second book, The New Southern Cook. Debbie has quite simply the most remarkable wine palate I’ve ever known, with an uncanny ability to know exactly what foods to pair with any particular bottle. She is also able to remember not only what she has tasted, but what she has sold! In 20 years, she has never steered me wrong.
photos by Delores Claire: Debbie with Serge and me with Celia, Alain, & Serge
We were thrilled when three of Charleston’s venerable restaurateurs, Serge Claire of Marianne, Alain Saley of Le Midi and Coco’s, and Celia Cerasoli of Celia’s, all showed up! When I opened my culinary bookstore in Charleston in 1986, their three restaurants were among a mere handful in downtown Charleston (there were just a few others: among them, Pinckney Caf?, Caf? Piccolo, Garibaldi, The Colony House, a Greek restaurant, and a couple of diners and soul food caf?s). Debbie moved to town in 1987 to represent Jean-Pierre Chambas, the French wine importer. I can’t tell you how many times I have eaten Serge’s p?t?, Alain’s flounder, or Celia’s lasagna; moreover, how many bottles of C?tes du Rh?ne we have shared. What a grand reunion it was!
I unfortunately had to cut my time short in Charleston to attend the memorial service for Karen Hess in New York. (You can read more about Karen here.) I saw many old friends and colleagues, including Nach Waxman of Kitchen Arts & Letters, Roy Finamore, Anne Mendelson, Andy Smith, Jane Daniels Lear, Jessica Harris, and Cara de Silva. I took boiled peanuts from South Carolina, and Julia and Andrew Fischel of RUB BBQ sent ribs and pulled pork. Karen’s son Pete gave me her favorite wooden spoon, and we all sat around a big circle and told Karen stories.