Although I grow different types of basil in my Virginia garden, this year was the year Thai basil stole my heart through my stomach. This aromatic herb makes a pleasing addition to mains, desserts and even cocktails.
Thai basil vs sweet basil
Thai basil is a variety of sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) but the flavor is spicier and more pungent -- like anise and clove combined. I grew ‘Queenette” which has leaves that are smaller and narrower than sweet basil. The plant is about 12 inches tall and the overall shape is more columnar or vertical than sweet basil.
Where is Thai basil used?
Thai basil gets its name from its popularity in Thai cuisine, but it is equally popular in Cambodia, Vietnamese, and Laos cuisines. Thai basil can withstand prolonged cooking heat so the leaves work well with chicken or beef stir-fried dishes. You will also find Thai basil in Pad Thai, Vietnamese Pho, spring rolls, curries, and noodle dishes.
Thai basil also makes a refreshing drink, which has proved to be a soothing balm during the hot and dry summer Virginia is currently experiencing.
How to grow Thai basil
Thai basil is grown like other basils, in full sun and with plenty of water in the summer. It is easy to start from seed after the average last frost when nighttime temperatures stay warm. Although we grow it as an annual, it really is a tender perennial that perishes with our fall frosts. Like other basils, Thai basil can be grown with other plants in a large container or by itself in a container or in the ground as an annual.
You may see two popular varieties that are more ornamental and larger, around two feet tall, with a broader shape: Siam Queen and Cardinal. Cardinal has large, dark red flower heads with burgundy red stems and bright green leaves. Siam Queen also has large flower heads that are dark purple-red with dark leaves. Siam Queen is a 1997 All-American Selections winner.
Is Thai basil prone to disease?
Thai basil is not prone to the downy mildew disease that affects sweet basil. I have never had a pest or disease issue although I have noticed that it is quicker to flower than the other basils. The solution is to have many plants, some for leaves, some for flowers.
You can either pinch your Thai basil to prevent flowering and harvest the leaves or let the plants flower and use the flowers as a garnish, for cut flower arrangements, or for vinegar.
Can Thai basil be dried?
Although I always use my basil leaves fresh, they can be dried for use later. Simply wash the foliage, separate the leaves from the stems, and lay the leaves flat on a tray of paper towels. After a few weeks, when they are as dry as corn flakes, put in a glass jar and store in a dark and cool place. Always label with the plant's name and date because you will never remember in the winter.
Basil flowers are made up of a calyx that dries and remains on the stem. The actual small flower inside each calyx drops off after it has bloomed. For many basils, what is left behind is a dried calyx which makes basil ideal for floral arrangements and potpourri.
Thai basil is such a magnificent multitasking herb, you cannot go wrong growing it in your garden. So why not try your hand at this aromatic herb? If you start your seeds off now, there's still a chance you could be relaxing in the sunshine with a home-mixed Thai basil gimlet before the end of summer. Cheers to that!
How to make a Thai basil cocktail
I combined one cup sugar and one cup water in a small saucepan. I added a cup of loosely packed leaves, which I mashed up against the side of the pot. After bringing to the boil and simmering for 15 minutes, I let the syrup cool, drained off the leaves, and poured the sweet, spicy syrup in a glass jar. This can last refrigerated for up to two weeks.
For an extra delicious twist, I added a few spoons of this liquid gold to a glass of limeade (made from one can of frozen concentrate). Immediately the thought popped into my head “Now if I add gin, would that be a Thai basil gimlet?”
I have discovered that when you make something with an herb, you begin to imagine the possibilities. For an evening tipple, just add the syrup to your cocktail of choice, be it mojitos, gin and tonics, daiquiris, or martinis.
Cooking up a fragrant storm with Thai basil
Add it to fruit
I could also tell that this flavor would work well with citrus. I poured a few spoonfuls over cut up oranges and added a few red monarda flowers for color. It was a great combination of orange, liquorice and spice. Adding real spices such as cloves and cinnamon – maybe even cardamom – would make the flavor even more complex. Another option would be to either add the syrup or mince the Thai basil leaves on mango, pineapple, or papaya.
Make your own flavoured vinegar
Thanks to their pretty flowers, which arrive in florets of deep purple, Thai basil is also used to flavour vinegar. Simply fill a glass jar with a five per cent vinegar such as apple cider or white wine vinegar and add the flower heads. Let it sit in a dark place for a few weeks before draining off the foliage (or leave it in as decoration). These make fabulous gifts if you can bring yourself to give them away.
Are Thai basil flowers edible?
The flowers are edible in the sense that they can be used in dishes safely. However, we wouldn't advise eating them on their own as the texture isn't the most appealing. Instead, use the flower heads as a garnish. For a visual feast as well as a tasty one, I added them to a dinner of salmon and scalloped potatoes.
Are you going bananas for basil? Try these varieties next!
Photos: © Peggy Riccio