The Culture of Food and Drink

Home / Cooking  / Basil’s Many Benefits

Basil’s Many Benefits

Fall is here, and the backyard garden is a messy tangle. The last few tomatoes are thick-skinned and no longer fragrant. But delicate leaves still top the stiff stalks of basil, and rubbing them gently releases volatile oils that leap into your nose. Sweet basil’s balanced fragrance of cinnamon, clove and anise evoke a steaming bowl of pasta bathed in pesto. But in other parts of the world, its cousins — Thai basil, holy basi, and lemon basil — are prized for their culinary and medicinal benefits.


Ocimum (basil) is a genus native to Asia and a member of the mint family. Because of its “promiscuous” behavior (according to the Herb Society of America), more than 65 cultivated species of basil can be found across the globe. In addition to the common sweet basil, Ocimum basilicum, there is Thai basil, Ocimum basilicum var. thyrsiflora, with a sweet anise and licorice aroma. Lemon basil is a cross between Ocimum basilicum and Ocimum americanum. Holy basil, Ocimum tenuiflorum, is revered by Hindus in South Asia, where it is known as “tulsi” and lauded for its medicinal properties in Ayurveda, Unani and Siddha traditions.

Culinary homes

Thai basil, notes chef and “Thai Food” cookbook author David Thompson, sweetens and perfumes any curries, soups or stir fries. Holy basil also is used in the Thai kitchen — a pungent red variety and a milder white one that goes with seafood and fish. There are actually three types of holy basil valued in the Ayurvedic tradition: dark red Krishna and light green Rama (both Ocimum tenuiflorum) and Vana (Ocimum gratissimum). Thai and holy basil have a slightly numbing quality that tames the heat of spices. As for lemon basil, Thompson notes that its sticky leaves are best suited to wet dishes. Lemon basil seeds, which look like poppy seeds, are used to garnish ice cream.

K.T. Achaya describes a recipe for a basil-scented version of the homey dish curd rice in “A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food.” After the rice is cooked in tulsi-infused water, curds (yogurt) are folded in.

Healing traditions

Ayurveda classifies tulsi as light and dry, with a pungent and bitter taste. Its potency is hot, and main actions are for kapha and vata disorders. A paste of the leaves is typically used externally as an insecticide, deodorant and to relieve edema. Internally, it is thought to stimulate the appetite and help general circulatory and respiratory problems. The soaked seeds have been used to treat dysentery. Tulsi is also a key ingredient in numerous other Ayurvedic formulations.

Contemporary Research

Holy basil is “many splendored things,” says Jim Duke of Dr. Duke’s Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Databases and Green Pharmacy, noting that it contains adaptogens — substances that increase the body’s resistance to physical, biological, emotional and environmental stressors and promote normal physiologic functions. Duke points to research that suggests that holy basil may have anti-aging and stress-relieving effects, and positive effects on blood sugar levels. Recent studies also bolster basil’s promise as an effective medicinal plant. Researchers publishing in the journal Phytotherapy Research found that a black tea including five common Ayurvedic plants — ashwagandha, licorice, ginger, holy basil and cardamom — increases natural killer cell activity in humans, an important early immune response to infections. Also this year, scientists in Thailand reported in the journal Bioscience, Biotechnology and Biochemistry that sweet basil oil applied to nham, a fermented pork sausage, reduced the number of bacteria on it. But then, perhaps Thai cooks already knew that.

You have many tasty options to get this wonder herb in your body. So just sip your tea, pound that pesto, decoct the stalks or simmer that curry in a hurry. No matter which way you choose to ingest your basil, you will bathe your insides with healing plant substances to stave off infections, decrease anxiety, improve digestion and circulation and, most important, enliven your palate.


Sweet Basil Pesto

Makes 1 cup


1 cup loose sweet basil leaves
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1-2 cloves garlic
¼ cup pine nuts or roasted almonds
½ cup grated parmigiano regiano
salt to taste
twist of lemon
pinch of chilli pepper


  1. Place basil, olive oil, garlic and nuts in the blender, and pulse blend for 5-10 seconds.
  2. Place in a bowl, and mix in grated cheese.
  3. Add salt to taste. You can add an optional twist of lemon for tang, and some chilli pepper to spice it up.


Ayurvedic healing chai

In the cold months, you can make a pot, or several, of tea and drink it throughout the day. These proportions are for a standard teapot that holds 3-4 cups of tea.


1 tulsi tea bag, or 1 teaspoon dried holy basil, or 4-5 leaves fresh holy basil
½ teaspoon dried licorice root
½ teaspoon dried or fresh ginger root
1 cardamom pod, crushed


  1. Pour boiling water over the herbs and let steep 3-4 minutes.
  2. Enjoy plain or add honey or sugar.

Sarah Khan, an assistant scientist at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, founded the nonprofit Tasting Cultures Foundation, which develops multimedia educational programming about the intersection of food and culture.

Photo: Fresh Thai basil, basil seeds, and bottled basil drink with honey from a Thai grocery.
Credit: Sarah Khan.

Zester Daily contributor Sarah Khan writes about food, culture, climate and sustainability. For her second Fulbright, she is presently traveling in South and Central Asia for a year (2014-15) to tell the stories of female farmers as they contend with a rapidly degraded agricultural landscape, gender inequality, poverty and climate change. She will document their challenges and victories in multiple media. To follow her journey, visit her website.