Sat, Sep 30, 2017 - Page 13 News List

Ian’s Table: The king of herbs

Fresh basil offers intense flavor, great nutritional and health benefits and is very easy to grow

By Ian Bartholomew  /  Contributing Reporter

Smoked salmon rolls with basil and zucchini, garnished with cucumber flowers.

Photo: Ian Bartholomew

Basil is one of the most aromatic of herbs, easily recognized, but often confusing in its variety of appearance and flavor. There are hundreds of types, the most immediately recognized being sweet basil, also called Genovese basil, the key ingredient in so many classic Italian dishes, and Thai basil, unsurprisingly a staple of Thai cuisine. The variety most sold in Taiwan under the generic name jiucengta (九層塔) is closer to Thai basil than it is to sweet, but there seems to be little consensus as to whether it is, strictly speaking, Thai basil or a variety of its own.

The name basil covers a wide territory of taste and aroma, and there is a large quantity of discussion of local food and recipe sites regarding questions like whether local basil can be used for pesto. It is basil after all. The short answer to that question is: No. Indeed my first introduction to local basil was just such an attempt, and while the result was not entirely inedible, the sharp, almost acrid flavor and pungent spiciness required considerable strength of character to ingest, and no amount of pine nuts and parmigiana was going to bring sweetness to the dish.

This is not to say that local jiucengta is an inferior type of basil, it is simply a different one, suitable to other preparations. It is perfect for the pungent Taiwanese eatery staple, three-cup chicken (三杯雞), and there is nothing better to provide a bit of zing to deep fried chicken pieces (鹽酥雞) and other tidbits at your local night market. It is also perfectly suited to sharpening the taste of most Thai dishes or sprinkled on top of Vietnamese pho. For Taiwan’s humid climate, it is the default basil, able to grow and produce abundant harvests of leaves even with minimal supervision. But leave it out of your bruschetta.

While sweet basil does not do so well in Taiwan, it is still relatively easy to grow, and offers a more delicate flavor that is perfect for salads and lightly seasoned dishes. It does not keep well, and the leaves will quickly oxidize once chopped. But washed and thoroughly dried, whole leaves can be kept for a couple of days in the fridge in an airtight container. Dried basil yields an insipid flavor, losing much of its pungency and vitality, but this has not prevented its sale as a dried herb — this may have some uses, but should not be mistaken as a suitable substitute for the fresh leaf. If you enjoy using sweet basil, it is best to grow it yourself. There are also a few methods of preserving its delicious flavor. Preservation in oil is the most common, but a much better method is to layer the leaves with salt. Neither method actually preserves the basil leaf, but keeps its flavor alive for use as an excellent flavoring for all kinds of dishes.

But nothing beats fresh sweet basil leaves, and even a whiff of its deeply complex perfume is enough to explain why it is sometimes referred to as the “king of herbs.” And more than simply tasting fantastic, it is also said to have anti-bacterial properties that actually makes the food you eat safer. It is particularly recommended as an addition to uncooked foods such as salads, as its essential oils have been show to retard the growth of various strains of bacteria that may cause intestinal discomfort when ingested. It is also a powerful anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and is recognized as having significant benefits for cardiovascular health. What more can you ask of something you put in your salad or pasta?

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