Basil: The Garden of Youth – The Stress-Busting Spice
Basil has a lot more to boast about than the burst of succulent flavor that comes from biting into its summer-fresh leaves. For starters, it may help keep you young!
In a study on basil and aging, Indian researchers found that compounds in this culinary favorite neuter dangerous molecules called free radicals. These molecules roam through the body and create oxidative damage (a kind of internal rust)—corroding arteries, decaying neurons, and eroding DNA (a possible trigger for cancer).
“The study validates the traditional use of basil as a youth-promoting substance in the Ayurvedic system of medicine,” reported Dr. Vaibhav Shinde, at the annual British Pharmaceutical Conference in London. (Ayurvedic medicine is the ancient Indian system of health maintenance and natural healing, in which basil was used not only to delay aging, but also as a remedy for diabetes, digestive disorders, skin problems, infections, and even snake bite.)
The researchers studied holy basil, a variety of the spice native to India. But all of the more than 30 varieties of basil contain the same uniquely health-giving phytonutrients, including the antioxidantsorientin and vicenin, and the volatile oils (concentrated compounds that give a plant its distinctive smell) eugenol and apigemen. Studies show that these and other compounds in basil may help prevent or treat a wide variety of health conditions.
The Stress-Busting Spice
When you’re under stress—stuck in a traffic jam, worried about your bank account, being chewed out by your boss—the adrenal gland generates stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline.
Short-term, they charge up your system, helping you cope. Long-term, however, they weaken the body, setting you up for conditions as commonplace as a cold or as life-threatening as heart disease. (In fact, studies show that unrelenting stress can cause or complicate nearly every health problem.)
But researchers in India found that several compounds in basil extract had “anti-stress effects” in stressed laboratory animals. Basil normalized levels of cortisol, lowered blood sugar (which spikes when you’re under stress), decreased creatine kinase (an enzyme generated when the body is under severe stress, such as during a heart attack), and stopped “adrenal hypertrophy” (a sign of overworked adrenal glands). In a similar study, another team of Indian researchers exposed animals to the stress of constant noise—and found that those given basil had much lower cortisol levels.
Help for Damaged Hearts
Researchers in India studied animals with induced heart attacks—and found that basil extract protected their hearts by “improving the body’s antioxidant defense mechanism and by diminishing free radical production.” Basil “may provide potential therapeutic value in the treatment of heart attack,” concluded the researchers in Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry. Other laboratory studies show that basil extract can reduce heart-harming blood fats, including total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides.
A Bounty of Healing
Other conditions that basil may help prevent or treat include:
Acne. Basil can kill the bacteria that cause acne, according to a study in the International Journal of Cosmetic Science. “These findings indicate the possibility to use Thai, sweet, and holy basil in suitable formulations for acne skin care,” the researchers concluded.
Cancer. Laboratory studies in India found that the antioxidant activity in basil has “the potential to block or suppress” liver, stomach, and lung cancer.
Diabetes. Extract from basil leaves “significantly lowered the blood glucose [blood sugar]” in laboratory animals with and without diabetes, reported a study in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology.
Eye problems. Eye drops containing basil and several other natural compounds helped relieve eye problems in more than 90 percent of those using the over-the-counter medication, according to a study inPhytotherapy Research. The drops were used for dry eyes, conjunctivitis (pink eye), dacryocystitis (an infection of the lower eyelid), and recovery from cataract surgery. (The product is Ophthcare, an Ayurvedic formulation.)
Pain relief. Take a whiff of fresh or dried basil—especially the variety known as sweet basil—and you’ll detect a slight scent of clove. The source of this aroma is eugenol, the same compound that makes oil of clove an effective painkiller. Eugenol works by blocking cyclooxygenase (COX), the pain-triggering enzymes also blocked by non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID) such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen.
Wound healing. Indian researchers found that basil leaf extract speeds wound healing. Basil “could be a fairly economic therapeutic agent for wound management,” they concluded in the Indian Journal of Experimental Biology.
Gout. In animal research, scientists in India reported that basil reduced levels of uric acid—the substance that causes the pain and inflammation of gout.
Ulcers. Holy basil inhibited the formation of stress- and NSAID-induced stomach ulcers in laboratory animals.
Malaria. An Ayurvedic preparation containing fresh holy basil leaves and black pepper relieved malarial symptoms.
Basil may help prevent and/or treat:
(high total cholesterol, high “bad” LDL cholesterol)
Diabetes, type 2
Dry eye syndrome
Eye infection, dacryocystitis
Getting to Know Basil
Basil is one of the most recognized and versatile seasonings. But it didn’t become popular in American kitchens until the 1970s, when the populace as a whole started patronizing Italian restaurants—and found out that pasta sauce doesn’t have to be red. These days, green pesto sauce—made from sweet basil (the kind most often used in American kitchens), olive oil, pine nuts, and garlic—is as common as red marinara sauce.
Many people think basil has an Italian heritage, because it’s so often teamed with the tomato. And it does grow profusely along the Mediterranean. But it’s actually native to India, Southeast Asia, and North Africa.
In days gone by, basil had a checkered reputation. To the Italians, it was the symbol of love—a pot of basil on the windowsill was a sign that a courting beau was welcome. When a Romanian man accepted a sprig of basil from a woman, they were considered engaged. But ancient Greeks viewed basil with suspicion, naming it after the basilisk, a deadly mythological creature.
BASIL IS A REVERED PLANT IN INDIA, WHERE THE ROOT IS CARVED INTO PRAYER BEADS (TULSI BEADS).
In culinary history, basil was most widely used in Italy’s Liguria region, which includes Genoa, where pesto was invented. Not too far away, in the Provence region of France, cooks made a similar basil sauce called pistou. It includes garlic and sometimes tomatoes, but never pine nuts, and is added to soup instead of pasta. Nowadays, basil is also an ingredient in the liver-based pates and terrines of France; the volatile oils counteract the richness. And throughout the Mediterranean, basil is favored with fish and in fish sauces.
Holy basil and Thai basil are commonly used in Oriental cooking. Basil is a popular flavoring in the cuisines of Southeast Asia, especially in Vietnam, where it is used in just about everything—soups, salads, stir-fries, stews, curries, and condiments. The Japanese cultivate a basil called green shiso, which is put in sushi rolls and salads. It is also fried in tempura batter.
Basil is a revered plant in India, where it was traditionally planted around temples and used in religious ceremonies (the root was even carved into prayer beads)—hence the name holy basil, or tulsi. In some weddings, parents give the bride away with a present of basil leaf. In winter, Indians make a basil tea called tulsi ki chah, which is brewed with holy basil leaves, shredded ginger, and honey.
Basil seeds become gelatinous when mixed in water, making for culinary adventures. In Thailand basil seeds are used in a popular milk-based dessert called mang nak lam ka-ti. In Iran and Afghanistan the seeds are used in a sherbet-like beverage.
How to Buy Basil
Basil is a beautiful, lush (and popular!) plant, with full, dark green leaves—freshly picked it can perfume a room like a bouquet of flowers. It grows profusely as long as you keep it warm and watered, and nip it back so it doesn’t flower and go to seed. It loves warmth and wilts at the first sign of cold.
Basil comes fresh, dried, or as a paste in oil. Though sweet basil is the most popular variety, you can purchase fresh basil plants in other varieties. Check with your local nursery.
The fresh basil available at the supermarket is sweet basil. Avoid buying leaves that are wilted or have black marks. Store fresh basil in the refrigerator, wrapped in a slightly damp paper towel. However, it doesn’t take well to being refrigerated, and starts to wilt after a few days.
You can freeze fresh basil, but it’s a little tricky. A clever technique: gather the fresh leaves in a loose bundle and place them in a clear plastic bag. Blow air in the bag and tie it tightly. Place the bag on a freezer shelf where the leaves won’t be disturbed, and take them out one by one, as needed. You can also cut a full sprig from your garden and freeze it the same way.
Basil growsprofusely ifit’s warm andwatered.
Dried basil doesn’t have the lush fragrance of fresh, but the dehydrated leaves have a large concentration of the health-giving volatile oils—a fact that quickly becomes apparent when you open the jar! Dried basil is also the best for long-simmering recipes. Look for dried basil that is uniformly dark green in color.
Dried basil will keep for six months in an airtight container stored in a dry place away from direct light.
Varieties other than sweet basil are difficult to find, even dried. Check the “Buyer’s Guide” for specialty spice retailers.
Holy basil is also available as a nutritional supplement.
Caution: Animal studies indicate that basil extract in very large amounts may have anti-fertility effects in both males and females. The supplement should not be taken by any individual or couple intending a pregnancy, or by a woman during pregnancy. As with all supplements discussed on this website, use only with the approval and supervision of a qualified health practitioner.
In the Kitchen with Basil
Even if you grow your own basil, you should always have a jar of dried basil in the pantry. Fresh basil is wonderful raw but it doesn’t take well to cooking, especially long cooking, as its flavor dissipates easily. It’s also finicky about being handled, and can turn black if bruised or cut with a knife. Only use fresh basil in the last few minutes of cooking. If a recipe calls for chopped fresh basil, tear it with your hands.
Basil pairs well with these spices:
and complements recipes featuring:
Cheese, hard and
Olives and olive oil
Tomatoes and tomato
Other recipes containing basil:
All-American Chili con Carne
Pizza Spice Blend
Shellfish in Saffron Broth
Thai Red Curry Paste
Two of the best ways to enjoy fresh basil: take a handful of whole leaves and toss them into hot pasta and dress with extra-virgin olive oil; or layer fresh basil leaves between slices of fresh vine-ripened summer tomatoes and fresh mozzarella cheese, sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper, and drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil.
Dried basil has a strong scent. But it isn’t as penetrating in the pot as its aroma suggests, so you can use it liberally. It is a natural for intense, full-flavored sauces.
Basil has a natural affinity with tomato. Its assertive flavor goes well with other equally assertive flavors, such as dry-roasted tomatoes, roasted peppers, and olive oil.
Ian Hemphill, an herb and spice expert from Australia, offers this suggestion on how to make dried basil taste closer to fresh: Mix ½ teaspoon of basil with ½ teaspoon of lemon juice, ½ teaspoon water, ½ teaspoon oil, and a pinch of ground cloves. Let it stand for a few minutes before using.
Here are some other ways to get more basil into your diet:
• Add basil leaves to Italian hoagies, grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches, and other sandwiches.
• Put fresh basil leaves in a bottle of white wine vinegar to mix with olive oil for salad dressings.
• Team fresh basil with mint and cilantro along with Bibb lettuce, bean sprouts, and chiles for a Vietnamese salad plate.
• Add basil leaves to stir-fries in the last moments of cooking.
• Make a healing tea by infusing chopped basil leaves in green or black tea.
• To make pesto, put 1 cup of fresh basil leaves, 1 cup of Parmesan cheese, ½ cup of pine nuts, and 5 cloves of garlic in a blender or food processor. Process while slowly adding olive oil (about ¼ cup), until it reaches a creamy consistency. Use pesto on pasta, grilled meat, or fish. Stir a tablespoon into soups at the last minute.
• Make a pistou as you would the above pesto, combining the basil leaves with 4 cloves of garlic and salt. Eliminate the cheese and the pine nuts. Spoon pistou over cold or hot salmon, broiled or grilled steak, sliced tomatoes, or bruschetta.
• Make a basil vinaigrette for a rack of lamb or lamb roast by combining ¼ cup of the juices from the bottom of the roasting pan and putting it in a blender with ½ cup of packed basil leaves and 3 tablespoons of white wine vinegar. Blend while slowly adding 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Just before serving, whisk in 2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste.
• Make a basil marinade for chicken by putting a big handful of fresh basil or a tablespoon of dried basil, salt, and chopped garlic in equal parts of extra-virgin olive oil, lemon juice, and water.
• Wrap shrimp in a basil leaf fastened with a toothpick and serve with traditional red cocktail sauce.
• Help keep salad greens and other raw food fresh from contamination, especially during warm weather, by adding fresh basil to the mix or adding dried basil to your basic vinaigrette dressings.
Meet the Basils
Basil is not one but a huge variety of plants, all of which botanically belong to the genus Ocimum—but only a handful are used as a culinary spice. These are the basils you might come across in culinary specialty markets:
• Sweet basil is the basil popular throughout the United States and Europe, and it’s by far the most popular for culinary use. It has a full-flavored, sweet, mint-like taste, with a hint of anise and clove. The color is brilliant green.
• In recent years sweet basil has been hybridized into other varieties, with subtle flavors reflected in their names, such as cinnamon basil, lemon basil, and anise basil.
• Thai basil, also called hairy basil or anise basil, is similar in appearance to sweet basil, but with purplish stems and veins. Many gourmet cooks like to use it for its stronger anise-like notes and a spiciness that is not found in sweet basil.
• Holy basil, also called tulsi, is grown in India, where it’s considered a holy plant and is infrequently used as a culinary spice. It contains more eugenol than other basil, hence its pungent, clove-like fragrance. (Clove also contains a lot of eugenol.) It’s smaller than sweet basil, with tinges of purple, and produces mauve-pink flowers when it goes to seed. Among basils, it’s the only perennial.
• East Indian basil is now cultivated in many parts of the world. It’s grown both as a spice and to keep away mosquitoes. It also has a clove-like fragrance.
• Tea-bush basil is grown and used in West Africa. It’s the least aromatic of all the edible basils.
• Purple basil comes in two varieties, Purple Ruffle and Dark Opal, which you might spot in your salad at a gourmet restaurant. It’s milder than sweet basil.
Spaghettini with Basil-Tomato Sauce
This tomato sauce couldn’t be easier to make. It has the rich taste and texture of homemade that can’t be found in commercial varieties. It can also be used as a pizza topping; just continue to cook until it thickens to the desired consistency. The sauce can be frozen for up to three months.
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 cups diced onions
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 twenty-eight-ounce can crushed tomatoes with their juices
1 tablespoon dried basil
¼ teaspoon dried rosemary
¼ teaspoon celery seed
Bouquet garni including fresh celery leaves
Salt to taste
1 pound spaghettini
1. Heat the oil in a medium-sized Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the onions and sauté for five minutes, stirring frequently. Add the garlic and continue to sauté until the garlic releases its aroma, about two to three minutes.
2. Add the canned tomatoes, basil, rosemary, celery seed, bouquet garni, and salt and simmer, uncovered, until sauce begins to thicken, about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, make pasta according to package directions. Ladle the sauce over the pasta.
Makes about 3 cups of sauce.