Three varieties of the extensive basil group of herbs are commonly used in Thailand and abroad they are given the generic name, Thai basil.
Ocimum basilicum, is a slight variant of the common sweet basil, with smaller leaves and slight licorice flavour. This basil is known as horapa in Thailand.
O. canum is closely related to lemon basil, O. citriodorum and has small leaves with a fine hairy covering. It as known as manglak in Thailand and is used mainly in sweets, especially the seed, which flavours many desserts and drinks.
It is O. sanctum or holy basil however, that most people think of when you mention Thai basil, This pungent herb has compact dark green leaves, purple stems and flowers, The whole plant has a complex and pervasive aniseed aroma and flavour and is planted extensively around temples in Thailand. There it is known as krapow, and due to its strong flavour is mainly used in rich seafood curries and hot, chilli-laden stir fries, such as the one below.
Interestingly, this basil originated in India and is one of the most sacred plants in that country, where it is known as tulsi. It plays an important part in many Hindu ceremonies and is associated with the God, Vishnu. If a Thai or holy basil leaf is included with a present in India, it indicates the permanence of the gift. Hence, brides in a Hindu wedding are given a sheaf of this basil by her parents, to signify a permanent bond between bride and groom. It is not widely used as a cooking ingredient in India, but will be found in drinks such as basil tea. It is shame really, because the herb is deliciously addictive. Try it cooked in this flavorsome stir-fry.
Stir fried chicken with basil, chilli and green beans.
500 gm (1 lb) chicken thigh meat, sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbs vegetable oil
2 hot red chillies, minced (use more if you like it hot)
200 gm (1/3 pound) green beans, sliced
20 holy basil leaves
1 Tbs Thai soy sauce (Golden Mountain sauce)
Heat the oil in a wok until smoking. Add the garlic and chilli and stir-fry for a few seconds. Add the chicken and continue until the meat changes colour, then add the green beans. Just as the chicken is cooked through, add the soy sauce and basil, stir for a second (and enjoy the basil's wonderful aniseed aroma as it floods the kitchen) and serve with hot jasmine rice.