Introduction to basil leaves
Basil is a highly fragrant herb that is most commonly used for seasoning purposes. It is associated more with Mediterranean cooking but is also very common in Asian cuisine but is cultivated all over the world. It has become the most easily recognizable plant since pesto, a blend of basil, pine nuts and parmesan cheese gained popularity. There are over 60 kinds of basil and all differ from each other to some extent in taste and physical appearance. In appearance basil resembles peppermint a bit, which is understandable since they belong to the same family (lamiaceae).
Sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum), has forceful, sweet flavor and strong aroma, while the other varieties offer flavors that resemble their names: anise basil, lemon basil, and cinnamon basil. Holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum, also known as Ocimum sanctum and tulsi), is considered a holy plant in Hindu religious tradition and is worshiped in the mornings and evenings. The name ‘tulsi’ denotes “the incomparable one”. The plant is considered to be a strong protector and is frequently planted around temples and placed with the dead. Basil is thought to be a love token and is planted on graves in Egypt, Iran and Malaysia.
The origin of basil’s scientific name is partially explained by Greek mythology. Ocimus was responsible for organizing contests in honor of Pallas (ruler of Paralia or Diacria) and had fifty sons. It is claimed that when Ocimus was killed at the hands of a gladiator, basil appeared. The remaining part of the name is drawn from Medieval Latin form of the Greek word “basileus” meaning “King”
History of Basil
It is believed that basil’s origins lie in the tropical areas of Thailand, Pakistan and India and has been cultivated there for over thousands of years. The first recorded account of basil probably goes back to its cultivation in Egypt, for possible use in embalming.
Basil has a very colorful history associated with it which dates as far back as the third century B.C.E. During the ancient times and up to the time basil was introduced to England somewhere near the 1500s, it was believed that crushed basil placed under a rock would give rise to serpents. Due to this legend, the common name of the herb comes from the Latin word “basilicum”, a mythological giant of a serpent. It was further believed that if ingested, basil would make scorpions grow in the brain. Basil was taken to North America in the early 1600s.
During the Middle Ages medicine men of the times thought basil was poisonous. This was based on the fact that basil could not grow in the vicinity of Rue, a woody plant with strong smell and bitter flavor whose oil was used in medicines. Rue was believed to be poisonous to the enemy and anything that could not grow in its vicinity was naturally considered to be poisonous.
Health Benefits of Basil
Basil’s extracts have been used for many ailments throughout history starting with simple problems like the common cold, stomach issues to more complex problems like heart disease, certain form of poisoning and malaria. Oils extracted from the plant are employed in manufacture of herbal toiletries. More recently basil has been found to be effective against a host of different ailments.
The Orientin and vicenin, two flavonoids found in basil protect cells and chromosomes from radiation and oxygen related damage. Additionally it protects against undesirable bacterial growth. Studies indicate that the explosive oil components in basil namely estragole, linalool, cineole, sabinene, eugenol, limonene and myrcene are responsible for inhibiting growth of pathogenic bacteria that no longer respond to the most commonly used antibiotic drugs.
Many over the counter anti-inflammatory medicines like asprin, ibuprofen and the frequently used acetaminophen work by inhibiting the function of the enzyme cyclooxygenase. The oil component eugenol blocks the very same enzyme. This ability to block the enzyme makes basil an anti-inflammatory herb capable of providing relief from conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel conditions.
Basil’s high concentration of carotenoids like beta-carotene (also called “pro-vitamin A” because it gets converted to vitamin A) is a very powerful anti-oxidant which protects epithelial cells from damage caused by free radicals. It also keeps free radicals from oxidizing cholesterol in the blood vessels. Since cholesterol accumulates in the blood vessels only after it has been oxidized, basil averts the development of atherosclerosis which can lead to heart attack or stroke. Free radicals also contribute to ailments like osteoarthritis, asthma, and rheumatoid arthritis. The beta-carotene reduces the development of these diseases while halting further damage.
The magnesium in basil helps muscle and blood vessels to relax. This improves blood circulation and cut down on the risks of heart muscle spasms, and irregular heart rhythms. Other more traditional benefits of basil include it use as a diuretic to flush out kidneys, relief from flatulence and fullness.
Basil has very few calories and is a very low in saturated fats, cholesterol and sodium. It is a good source of protein, dietary fiber and many minerals and vitamins essential for good health. It is an outstanding source of Vitamin A, E, C, K, B6, Folate, Riboflavin and Niacin. It is also a very good source of minerals like Calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, copper and manganese.
The various varieties of basil differ in their specific nutritional content, but the average Recommended Daily Value of some nutrients found in 100 grams of basil in general include:
- Iron: 40%
- Calcium: 18%
- Protein: 3 grams
- Vitamin A: 100%
- Vitamin K: 345%
- Vitamin C: 30%
Uses of basil
Being a herb, basil is most commonly used fresh in cooked foods. It is best when added at the very last stages of cooking, or used as garnish on top of a dish after it has finished cooking. This ensures that all nutrients remain intact and also over cooking basil destroys its flavor. The herb has refrigerator life of a few days, but it can be kept in a freezer for longer durations after blanching in boiling water very quickly. Although basil is commonly available in dried form, it loses most of its flavor in this form and what remains is quite different from the original fresh taste.
Everyone one is familiar with basil’s use in pesto and its addition to tomato sauces. It is also great when combined with mozzarella and tomatoes sprinkled with olive oil for a traditional Caprese salad. It can be chopped or blended with soft butter and poured over steaks, roast chicken or boiled potatoes.
A few other unconventional ways to use basil include:
- Basil is proven to keep flies, mosquitoes and roaches away. Many chefs are known to keep basil plants in the kitchen to keep free from pests and fresh smelling.
- A number of basil varieties produce attractive flowers and buds. These stems look great when employed in flower arrangements.
- Basil provides a very appealing aroma when used in scented candles and soaps.
- It makes a great potpourri ingredient.
- Some varieties are very well suited for hedging and border purposes in gardens.
Basil has been the subject of numerous studies trying to establish how its nutritional components functions. While many of these studies are carried out in vitro and other on animals, its benefits to human ailments is gaining acceptance. Holy basil in particular contains powerful antioxidants and enjoys a safe GRAS status in the U.S. Clinical studies involving basil’s effect on ulcers and controlling blood sugar levels in type II diabetics show some promise.
In some initial clinical trials, asthma patients treated with five hundred milligrams of holy basil thrice daily, improved breathing and cut down on the frequency of attacks. In another study carried out in Thailand, the effectiveness of three different varieties of basil leaf oils was tested for treatment of acne. It was found that oils from sweet basil and holy basil were effective against acne.