Do you know how many types of basil there are?
In Vietnam, we often eat all sorts of herbs together either fresh or with noodle soup. I could tell the taste of different herbs apart but I didn’t know all the names. I had no clue if there was more than one type of basil.
The first shop I worked in was a Thai mini supermarket in Newcastle, England. Every Tuesday and Thursday, there would be fresh herbs coming in, and the owner always stressed how important it was to display them nicely and openly. At first, I didn’t understand the reason for all the fuss. They were just herbs. Man, I was wrong. Tuesdays and Thursdays were always busy because guests came in especially for those fragrant leaves. The Thai basil, both holy and sweet, were popular.
If you go to a typical supermarket in England, you will only find Greek basil. They have a lighter green colour. Their leaves are round with a milder taste. Those are the ones that I end up growing. I use them for everything that calls for basil from a Thai sauce to Italian pesto. I know it’s not by the book but I am a go-with-the-flow kind of chef. Actually, I wanted to grow Thai basil this year, but the website I got my seeds from was always out of stock for this Asian special.
I did diversify my collection. Our balcony was filled with pots of purple basil. Their colour stands out, and they also make fine pesto.
Care for basil
Caterpillars love basil!
Many mornings I woke up to find a plant stripped off all green leaves, standing naked with one single stem. Those were the extreme cases. More often, a caterpillar would sneak out at night, make a hole in a few leaves and disappear before the day comes. If you don’t pay attention when watering, you might not notice the enemy until it’s too late. So rule number 1 is to watch out. Rule number 2 is to get a torch. My Dad told me this trick, and it worked. You come out when it’s dark, and check the plants with your light. The chance is that you will find a fat green caterpillar gnawing away your precious leaves. Look out for the odd shape amount the leaves as their colours are very similar.
Basil likes well-drained soil and being in sunny spot. Water a plant when the soil dry to the touch. Aim for the base and try not to wet the leaves.
The more regular you clip off the leaves, the bushier a plant can become. Bushy plants look healthier and seem less fragile with the wind. As I live in North Holland, strong wind is the norm and I always have to think about my plants in the wind.
The good thing about harvesting basil is that you can pick a few leaves or a couple of hands full depending on your needs. It won’t affect the growth of your plants.
Basil is quick to germinate and slow to flower. You can keep harvesting leaves for months before there are any flowers. I find growing basil is much more reliable in this sense than growing coriander. When there are flowers, you can keep cutting them off, and the leaves will continue to grow. The flowers are edible and pretty.
Use of basil
When you have a few leaves, toss them in a salad with tomato and mozzarella. If you harvest a bunch, make pesto. All you need to make tasty pesto is basil leaves, pine nuts, garlic, parmesan cheese and olive oil. It’s simple and delicious. You can also freeze pesto for lazy days. If you want to make pesto with Thai basil, throw in some lemongrass. Make sure you have a powerful food processor as lemongrass is tough.