Thai Basil

When I am longing for the sun, there are other flavors besides Meyer lemons that recall the sensation of warmth to my thoughts.

Thai basil is one of them–sharper and more pungent than the more familiar European varieties, it never fails to shake the cobwebs from my mind and get my chi flowing.

When paired with the wickedly-hot wee Thai chiles, Thai basil can give an unforgettable culinary kick in the pants that is not only energizing, but addictive.

But in a good way.

Thai basil is a necessary ingredient in many Thai dishes, and while for years I was forced to substitute Italian Genovese basil for it, once I found a source for the correct herb and tasted the difference it made in my cooking, I never looked back. I determined that when we moved to a place where I could have a garden, I would grow my own basils and chile peppers, and never be bereft again.

Which is what I did. The spring before last I started my own basil and mint plants. I knew that there was no way I was going to be able to afford to put in plants from a nursery and still keep Zak and I in both Thai food and pesto–the amounts needed were too high. So, I invested in seed starting trays and a grow light and turned out spare bedroom into a plant nursery.

I ended up with well over one hundred basil plants of three different kinds: Thai basil, Genovese and Holy basil.

The variety I ended up growing of the Thai basil was Siam Queen, which is a beautiful, vigorous plant, bushy and upright in habit with dark green leaves that shade to purple near the flowering tips. The square stems (a sign that shows basil’s relationship to mint–basil, like many other culinary herbs, is in the mint family) are also purple, as are the flowers, which are extremely popular with bees. The leaves, stems and flowers are all edible and are quite flavorful, though the thicker stems are too tough to be palatable. Among the three types of basil I grew that year, it was the most beautiful, and when it came time to transplant all of my baby plants into the garden, I ended up sprinkling among the roses, salvia and other perennials in the flower garden, as I ran out of room in the vegetable and herb patch.

They never failed to get attention from all of the visitors of the garden, whether they were people, bees, butterflies or hummingbirds.

And no matter how many Thai dishes I cooked that year, we were never short of basil to put in them.

Last year, I ended up with fewer basil plants; due to my mother having surgery in prime seed-starting time, I ended up not starting my baby plants. I bought ten plants of Siam Queen at a local nursery, but I had to carefully tend them and snip them in order to eke them out over the summer season.

It is coming close to time to think of dragging the seed starting stuff out of the basement and setting up a plant nursery, but since we are moving house in March and I am not sure what kind of sun exposure we will have in the new garden, I think I will resist the urge to sprinkle seeds into flats and watch hundreds of tiny plants sprout. I think it is best to see how much sun I will be getting and what kind of soil I will have to work with before throwing myself into midwifing a a huge family of tiny basils.

And once we move, if it looks like we will have a good spot for a basil patch, I can always head out to my favorite herb nursery ever and pick out some started plants. Then, next winter, around this time, I can indulge in my seed-starting passion, and watch as hundreds of little Siam Queens pop their first infant leaves above the soil.

Until then, I can assuage my longing by picking up a bunch of basil at the Asian market and putting together one of Zak’s favorite Thai dishes–Spicy Chicken with Basil.

Chicken with Basil–a spicy Thai stir fry dish that features fiery chiles and sweet Thai basil with garlic and shallots.

Thai Chicken with Basil

1 lb. boneless skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1”X1/2” slices
1 tbsp. cornstarch
1 tbsp. oyster sauce
3 tbsp. peanut oil
2 large shallots, sliced as thinly as you can manage
3-5 Thai bird chiles sliced thinly on the diagonal (or to taste–with me, more is better)
zest of one lime (If you can get fresh kaffir lime leaves, 3 of them cut chiffonade are best)
8 cloves garlic minced
fish sauce to taste*
½ lb. string beans, trimmed, washed, blanched and drained
½ cup carrots cut julienne
1 1/2 cups Thai basil leaves packed
½ cup holy basil leaves, packed (optional-if you can get them)
2 tbsp. oyster sauce, or to taste
juice of one small lime
1/3 cup unsalted chicken broth or stock

Toss cut chicken with cornstarch and oyster sauce.

Heat oil in wok until smoking. Add shallots, chiles and lime zest, and cook until the shallots begin to brown. Add garlic and cook until fragrant.

Add chicken, and push into a single layer and allow to cook without stirring for about one minute, or until chicken begins to brown. Stir, and then stir constantly, cooking until chicken is nearly all white, with only a bit of pink showing.

Add some fish sauce, and let it cook down, then add carrots and cook for one minute, stirring madly. Add green beans and cook for one more minute, stirring. Add the basil leaves and stir for another minute, allowing them to wilt.

Add a dash more fish sauce, a dollop (about a tablespoon is all I use, but some folks like more) oyster sauce and lime juice, boil until sauce cooks down (this takes about thirty-45 seconds, really). Add broth or stock and cook just until sauce is barely thickened by reduction, barely a minute. The basil should be wilted, the chicken glazed with a bit of browning but mostly white and tender, and the veggies crunchy-tender.

Serve over steamed jasmine rice.

*One more thing–about fish sauce–do not be afraid of it. I know it smells funky. Believe me, I know, but you cannot cook Thai food without it. Soy sauce is not a substitute. It isn’t the same. Believe it or not, but the smell really does not indicate the beautiful, complex flavors it brings out in food. When it hits a hot wok it smells rather like someone left a sardine in their tennis shoe in a locker and let it putrify all summer. But the end result is nothing like that.

It seems to boost the natural flavors of other foods while adding its own subtleties that somehow do not have anything to do with fishiness. I don’t quite know how it all works–maybe it is magic. But at any rate, don’t leave it out unless you are allergic to fish or something.

And if you are having people over who are unitiated into the sacred mystery that is fish sauce, before you dash it into the hot wok, send them out of the kitchen, or you may frighten them out of eating dinner. Send them on an errand, out to pick up the newspaper, to walk the dog, to call their mother–anything, but do it. Trust me. I have had to do this with my Mom for years. She loves Thai food, but hates fish and I just know if she were to smell fish sauce, that would be the end. She would never eat pad thai again.

So, I always send her out for her last cigarette before dinner just before it is time to splorch the fish sauce in. It works like a charm.


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  1. Mmm, basil. I can almost smell it.

    BTW, the photocopy is on its way. Enjoy!

    Comment by Christina — February 3, 2005 #

  2. Thank you, Christinia! I am looking forward to reading it.

    If there is anything I can send you from out this way, just let me know!

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — February 3, 2005 #

  3. I (WWJudith), expressed some opinions about February on Zak’s LJ. I also said there how much I like your blog, so I’m coming here to say that thing again.

    I really like your writing a lot–it’s so immediate. I’m right there, eating and tasting things!! It’s fun, and very satisfying. Although, irl, hot things distress my stomach here I can be a virtual foodie without fear.

    Thanks, Judith

    Comment by Anonymous — February 3, 2005 #

  4. Hey, Judith!

    I am glad you are enjoying the taste of the words here!

    Re–hot foods–some people are not able to eat spicy foods. In my case, I have always enjoyed highly flavored foods–I teethed on scallions, for example–but intense chile flavors I have worked up to over time. I should probably write a blog entry about how that happened–because it is a really funny story.

    What I am saying is this–the taste for chiles is not inborn–everyone works up to it gradually. There is no sense in leaping into a dish that is up to my heat tolerance if you haven’t done the same program of desensitization to chiles. For you, if I was cooking the dish I posted, I would use 1/2 to 1 Thai chili for the entire recipe. Just enough to give you a little tingle–not a jolt of the flavor and heat.

    I think my experience of being a personal chef and cooking for people from other countries, all of whom loved highly flavored foods, but who had different chile heat tolerances (and developing Zak’s tolerance gradually) has helped me to understand how to present chiles to people of varying ability to eat them.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — February 3, 2005 #

  5. […] between their flavor and that of onions, but I disagree. Especially in Thai recipes, such as Thai Basil Chicken the flavor of shallots is necessary, for they are milder than onions with a lingering sweetness […]

    Pingback by Tigers & Strawberries » The Lady of Shallots — July 9, 2012 #

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