Ingredient Of The Week: Basil
The basil family is a large and beloved one. While strongly associated with southern Europe, basil lends its distinctive voice to Asian cuisines too, as in Thai and Vietnamese dishes. Basil leaves may be rounded or ruffled, the most soothing of greens or the darkest purple in colour, straight-edged or serrated, and as tiny as thumbnails or as large as lettuce leaves. Western-style sweet basil is easily recognisable by its strong clove aroma and Thai basil by its distinctive anise note, but there are also basil cultivars with nuances including lemon, lime, liquorice, cinnamon, and camphor.
Sweet basil is rightfully feted for its affinity with tomatoes, but it also plays well with fruits with a tomato-like sugar-acid balance, as well as sweet vegetables such as pumpkin, zucchini and capsicum; it provides an able counterpoint to most meats, too. The herb is best used fresh—when dried, sweet basil transforms into a different element altogether, losing its floral notes and gaining an intense, dusky pungency that only mellows with prolonged cooking in stews or soups.
Regular Thai basil has a sweet, musky character that, like Western-style sweet basil, helps to lighten heavy flavours and freshen rich dishes. Meanwhile, Thai holy basil is used in stir-fry for its spicy flavour; the red-leaved cultivar is paired with meats and the paler, milder-tasting white-leaved cultivar with seafood. Lemon basil—also known as daun kemangi and bai maenglak—has a keen citrus edge and partners well with all kinds of seafood dishes, but is extremely fragile, wilting within hours of being picked if not properly stored.
In fact, basil’s fragility is one of its few flaws. Swaddle your fresh basil sprigs in paper towels, place them inside large resealable bags, gently press out as much air as you can, then stash them in your fridge’s vegetable drawer—but you want to leave them there for as short a time as possible. The leaves blacken soon after being cut with a metal blade (which is why many recipes recommend hand-tearing instead) or if kept at too cold a temperature; only a few varieties have sturdy enough leaves to survive these. Blanching basil maintains its green hue for pestos and sauces, but at the expense of some of its scent. Alternatively, freeze basil in ice cube trays covered with water, then add it to stocks.
Basil is an indispensable ingredient in many restaurants. We asked chefs and bartenders how they highlight its flavour, fragrance and appearance.
Jim Thompson: A Thai Restaurant
“Basil is a key ingredient in most of our cocktails. We usually shake the leaves with the rest of the ingredients to keep the delicate aroma and flavour. In case we need to pound them, we do it gently to avoid bitterness.”
—Edwin Gorion, bar manager
Senso Ristorante & Bar
“Basil has a unique flavour and is a versatile ingredient. Its aroma adds life to even the simplest dish. The purpose is endless—sometimes I’ll use it to create unconventional desserts, such as basil-infused white chocolate mousse with strawberry or a simple basil ice cream.”
—Sebastien Donati, group executive sous chef
“One of my favourite ingredients is basil. It’s widely used in cuisine from the south of France, where I come from. It also depicts the wonderful Mediterranean flavours, and mixes well with ingredients such as olive oil and tuna. To cook it, always select the green leaves (not yellowish) and slice with a sharp knife.”
—David Nicolas Senia, culinary director