Friday, April 27, 2012

The not-so-humble Basil

It was not until I arrived in Australia that I had my first conscious taste of basil, at a Vietnamese pho restaurant in Parramatta’s Church Street.

Church Street - Paramatta

I used the adjective ‘conscious’ to describe that claimed initial tasting experience as a hedge against any possibility of me having actually taken basil before during one of my many trips to Thailand (from its south to the north), but without knowing of it or recognizing the taste to be aware of the fact.

Khlong or canal in Bangkok

I love the way Vietnamese cuisine, very much like Thai food, employs generous accompaniments of fresh herbs like basil, Vietnamese mint (chian-horm in Penang Hokkien), bean sprouts, coriander etc, to its dishes. It’s not unlike our Malaysian ulam (Malay fresh salad) except the Viets and Thais do it in almost every dish.

Ulam - Malay Fresh Salad

Most of all, I love the way how basil leaves dipped in the hot steaming soup of pho brings out all those lovely herbal fragrance to enhance the beefy flavour. And I like to pop the bean sprouts in at the very last second so as to keep them still firm and crunchy as I do justice to the pho.


Strangely, despite traditional and regular use by Straits-born Penang Chinese of ulam sambal belacan with their meals, I hadn’t come across the lovely basil.

Sambal Belacan - from Lydia Teh's My Kitchen

The ulam I have been familiar with during my teen years in Penang consisted mainly of (not an exhaustive sampling):

Fruits on Cashew Tree

·  cashew tree shoots (pucuk janggus in Bahasa, janggoi heoh in Penang Hokkien; pucuk ménté or pucuk monyet in Indonesian) - only the shoots are suitable for ulam as the mature leaves (see above photo) would be too bitter and fibrous

Cashew Shoots - Pucuk Janggus

·  long beans (kacang panjang in Bahasa, ch’ai tau in Penang Hokkien, tau gok in Cantonese) - also known as Chinese long beans, asparagus beans (vigna unguiculata ssp sesquipedalis), yardlong beans, long-podded cowpea, and snake beans in Australia

Long Beans - Ch'au Tau

·  4-angle beans (kacang botol in Bahasa, see-kark-tau in Penang Hokkien) – also known as winged beans, princess beans, Goa beans (Psophocarpus tetragonolobus)

4-Angle Beans - See-Kark-Tau

·  Vietnamese mint or Vietnamese cilantro or Cambodian mint or hot mint (persicaria odorata) (daun kesom or sometimes daun laksa in Bahasa, chian-horm in Penang Hokkien)

Vietnamese Mint

There is a traditional belief in Vietnam that Persicaria odorata would repress sexual urges. A Vietnamese saying ‘rau răm, giá sống’, which translates literally into 'Vietnamese coriander (or mint), raw bean sprouts', buttresses the cultural notion of Vietnamese mint having the opposite effect of Viagra wakakaka, while bean sprouts bring out the Tiger in men ;-). Hey, stir-fry bean sprouts in a mix of sambal belacan and harm-yee (dry salted fish) and we will all be potential were-tigers after eating that wakakaka.


But fortunately Vietnamese Buddhist monks aren't like kaytee wakakaka, and instead grow Vietnamese mint in their private gardens so as to eat it frequently as a helpful step in their celibate life.

Bean Sprouts

Alamak, remind me not to take too much Vietnamese mint, wakakaka.


·  and of course slices of cabbage, cucumber (timun), green mango, barng kuang*, carrots, onions and any raw crunchy veggie and zillions of other delectable herbs like mint, but unfortunately no basil

Jicama Vine

* barng kuang turnip or Chinese turnip, the latter term having gained local recognition through incorrect naming. It’s ubi sengkuang in Bahasa. But then one day I saw in a couple of highly reliable cookbooks that it’s actually jicama (pronounced in the Spanish manner as hecama) or yam bean (pachyrhizus erosus) or Mexican turnip or Mexican turnip.

Jicama - barng kuang

Now, there are many varieties of basil. 

Italian Basil

Greek Columnar Basil

Greek Basil

Lettuce Leaf Basil

African Blue Basil - 'Dark Opal'

Red Rubin Basil

Genovese Basil

Cinnamon Basil

Thai Basil

For example, the Hindus considered the basil plant (ocimum sanctum) as sacred. They called it Tulasi or Surasah in Sanskrit, Tulsi in Hindi, Tiruttizhai, Tiruttilai or Tulasi in Tamil, Sivatulasi in Malayalam and Oddhi in Telugu.

Holy Basil

I have added just the Tamil, Malayalam and Telugu names for the plant as these, as far as I know, are the three major southern Indian languages spoken in Malaysia.

Lemon Basil

Lime Basil

In Bahasa, ocimum sanctum is called Oku, Ruku-ruku or Sulasi. As in the case of Bahasa, languages of countries with significant Hindu influence in their culture, like Thai, Khmer, Indonesian, Laotian, and Burmese also have their own names for basil.

Tulasi (Holy) Basil

The above names are those for the sacred basil or holy basil. Obviously, as I mentioned above, there are other types of basil, for example, Kemangi, Daun selaseh, Selasi jantan in Bahasa.

Holy Basil

The Hindus believed the basil or Tulasi is sacred to Lord Vishnu and a reincarnation of his consort Lakshmi, or that of some of his avatars, like Rama and Sita.


Steward Lee Allen in his book, In The Devil’s Garden – A sinful History of Forbidden Food, provided a variation to the Hindu myth. An Indian girl named Vrinda (incidentally also another name for Lakshmi) was so distressed by her husband’s death that she committed Sati, the Hindu act of devotional self immolation by widows.

The title Sati means 'Righteous' - Hindus believe the first Indian woman to commit Sati was Parvati, consort of Lord Shiva. She did so to protest strongly against the wrongs and insults to her husband, rather than as a devoted widow joining her deceased husband in death. When a woman committed Sati, she would hold a sprig of Tulasi in her hands.


So Aneh’s and Tambee’s, just keep an eye on the sweeties if they walk away holding a sprig of Tulasi wakakaka.

Spicy Basil

Back to Stewart Allen's story, the gods was so impressed by Vrinda’s devotion that they turned the ashes of her hair into the Tulasi, the sweet and fragrant basil or ocimum sanctum. They ordered their priests to revere the sacred plant.

Holy Basil

It seems that some Indian courts still make Hindus take an oath by placing their hands over this holy plant, akin to Christians doing so with the Holy Bible. Apart from its use by Hindus as a purifier during religious ceremonies, the sacred basil is also employed by Indians to keep snakes and mosquitoes away, and for general health purposes.

Basil Napolitano

Alexander the Great was responsible (or at least his generals and soldiers were) for the basil going from India to Europe, where, particularly with the Italians, it became popular as a herb.

Cuban Basil

Steward Allen humorously narrated how the Italians, being Catholics, slowly modified Vrinda's unacceptable suicide into the tale of an Italian maid, Lisabetta, deeply distressed by the death of her lover. She cut off his head, buried it in a pot, grew a basil plant in the container, and watered it with her tears. The plant grew by leaps and bounds because of the special fertiliser. It was said the plant’s amazing growth attracted pilgrimages from people all over Italy.

African Blue Basil - 'Kasar'

African Blue Basil

Thus, not surprisingly, basil became a symbol of love in medieval Italy and also because the leaves resemble the shape of hearts, and was called ‘kiss-me-Nicholas’. Italian women would wear basil to charm and (hope to) bewitch a man of their desire. Young maidens would wear a sprig of basil in their hair to profess their availability wakakaka.

Thai Basil - 'Queen Siam'

Similarly in Romania, if a boy accepts a sprig of basil from a girl, it means they were engaged to be married. Gulp, I hope this doesn’t apply to Vietnamese culture.

Sweet Basil

The name basil is derived from Greek basileus (king), because of the royal fragrance of this herb.

Genovese and Red Rubin Basils

There was also a story that the word basil was derived from the terrifying basilisk, which was a mythical creature, half-lizard and half-dragon. It was claimed the basilisk was hatched from the egg of a serpent or toad by a cockerel.


According to Greek mythology, if the basilisk stared at a person, he was as good as dead. Coincidentally, the antidote against the fatal stare, breath or even the bite of the basilisk was the basil leaf. Nonetheless, regardless of the mythical nature of the fable, the ancient Greeks used basil as a cure for venomous bites.

Thai Basil

Claims of Alexander the Great taking basil to Europe notwithstanding, apparently basil was already used by the ancient Egyptians (Ptolemies or the Late Period) because archaeologists found a sprig of basil during an excavation of a rubbish dump in the city of Memphis.

Cinnamon Basil

I frequently partake of the delicious Vietnamese dish Pho Dac Biet (combination beef noodles soup), which uses fresh basil as fragrant garnishing. The next time I do so, I’ll certainly treat the basil with its ancient and amazing pedigree with more respect.

Pho Dac Biet

And yes, gulp again, I’ll be careful about accepting a sprig of basil from the Vietnamese sweetie who always serves me wakakaka.


frank tam said...

great article!!!

Anak Merdeka said...

*like* (both the article and Pho Dac Biet) ;)

IndaMarya said...

love all yr posts..but wonder why you have stopped writing.keep up.I am yr fan.

KTemoc said...

Thanks IndaMarya, have been blogging mainly on politics at KTemco Konsiders, but no worries, there'll be a couple of posts here soon

Jeremy Albaran said...

where are you from anyway sir whose the Vietnamese girl in your blog the sweetie

KTemoc said...

Australia, and I wish she is my girlfriend wakakaka