The next herb we will take a closer look at in our History of Spice Series is Basil.

history of basilCommon Name: Basil
Scientific Name: Ocimum basilicum
Other Names: Thai Basil, Sweet Basil

Basil is a an herb that is most often used in Italian cuisine. It is also a popular herb in Asian dishes. Basil is part of the mint family. The plant has small, shiny green leaves and a very distinct aroma. Basil’s flavor is sweet and pungent.

There are two main varieties of basil: Sweet basil and Thai basil.   Sweet basil is most often used in Italian cuisine and Thai basil in Asian cuisine.

This herb is native to India and today there are over 150 varieties of basil.

Basil has been around for over 4,000 years. Throughout history, basil was believed to have almost magical powers.  It was used as an antidote for snake bites, and was believed to give strength during religious fasting.

It was found in mummies in Egypt because the ancient Egyptians used this herb for embalming. In Greece, basil was a symbol of mourning. The herb was referred to as basileus phuton, meaning magnificent, royal or kingly herb.

Today, basil is frequently referred to as the ‘King of Herbs’. It was also once known as the ‘herb of poverty’ because it was believed to provide protection to the poor.

In India, this herb was considered a powerful protector. They planted it around their temples and placed it with the dead to protect them in the afterlife.

In Crete, basil was considered an emblem of the devil. They placed this herb on their window ledges to help ward away this evil.

Basil was also once believed to identify chastity. If the herb withered in the hands of a woman, she was considered to be impure.

In medieval times, many doctors thought basil was poisonous. During this same time, others believed that basil was good for “cheering the spirit” and “clearing the brain”.

Basil was not introduced in Britain until the 16th century and they later brought this herb to North America. Today it is grown all over the Mediterranean region and in California.

Culinary Uses
In Italian cuisine, basil adds wonderful flavor to tomato sauce, pesto, and vinegars. It can also be sprinkled over salads and sliced tomatoes.   In Asian cuisine, this herb is great on salads and on many types of meat and vegetable dishes.  It is also great in pesto.

Medicinal Uses
Basil has been used as a remedy for common health problems for thousands of years. This herb is believed to help with:

  • poor digestion
  • headaches
  • the common cold
  • flatulence
  • improve memory
  • vomiting
  • anxiety
  • motion sickness
  • high cholesterol
  • treatment for burns and cuts