AskDefine | Define basil

Dictionary Definition



1 any of several Old World tropical aromatic annual or perennial herbs of the genus Ocimum
2 (Roman Catholic Church) the bishop of Caesarea who defended the Church against the heresies of the 4th century; a saint and Doctor of the Church (329-379) [syn: St. Basil, Basil of Caesarea, Basil the Great, St. Basil the Great]
3 leaves or the common basil; used fresh or dried [syn: sweet basil]

User Contributed Dictionary

see Basil




From basile, from basilicum, from βασιλικόν, from βασιλεύς.


  1. A plant (Ocimum basilicum).
  2. The leaves of this plant used as a herb.





From bacil


  1. bacillus

Extensive Definition

Basil (Ocimum basilicum) ( or /ˈbæzəl/), of the Family Lamiaceae. Basil is a tender low-growing herb that is grown as a perennial in warm, tropical climates. Basil is originally native to India and other tropical regions of Asia, having been cultivated there for more than 5,000 years. There are many varieties of basil, that which is used in Italian food is typically called sweet basil, as opposed to Thai basil or holy basil, which are used in Asia. It is prominently featured in Italian cuisine, and also plays a major role in the Southeast Asian cuisines of Thai, Vietnamese and Laotian. It grows to between tall, with opposite, light green, silky leaves long and broad. The flowers are quite big, white in color and arranged in a terminal spike. Unusual among Lamiaceae, the four stamens and the pistil are not pushed under the upper lip of the corolla, but lay over the inferior. After entomophilous pollination, the corolla falls off and four round achenes develop inside the bilabiate calyx. The plant tastes somewhat like anise, with a strong, pungent, sweet smell. Basil is very sensitive to cold, with best growth in hot, dry conditions. While most common varieties are treated as annuals, some are perennial, including African Blue and Holy Thai basil.
The word basil comes from the Greek βασιλεύς (basileus), meaning "king", as it is believed to have grown above the spot where St. Constantine and Helen discovered the Holy Cross. The Oxford English Dictionary quotes speculations that basil may have been used in "some royal unguent, bath, or medicine". Basil is still considered the "king of herbs" by many cookery authors. An alternative etymology has "basil" coming from the Latin word basilicus, meaning dragon and being the root for basilisk, but this likely was a linguistic reworking of the word as brought from Greece.

Culinary use

Basil is most commonly recommended to be used fresh; in cooked recipes it is generally added at the last moment, as cooking quickly destroys the flavour. The fresh herb can be kept for a short time in plastic bags in the refrigerator, or for a longer period in the freezer, after being blanched quickly in boiling water. The dried herb also loses most of its flavour, and what little flavour remains tastes very different, with a weak coumarin flavour, like hay. Basil is one of the main ingredients in pesto—a green Italian oil-and-herb sauce from the city of Genoa, its other two main ingredients being olive oil and pine nuts. The most commonly used Mediterranean basil cultivars are "Genovese", "Purple Ruffles", "Mammoth", "Cinnamon", "Lemon", "Globe", and "African Blue". Chinese also use fresh or dried basils in soups and other foods. In Taiwan, people add fresh basil leaves into thick soups (羹湯; gēngtāng). They also eat fried chicken with deep-fried basil leaves. Basil is sometimes used with fresh fruit and in fruit jams and sauces—in particular with strawberries, but also raspberries or dark-colored plums. Arguably the flat-leaf basil used in Vietnamese cooking, which has a slightly different flavour, is more suitable for use with fruit.

Basil seeds

When soaked in water the seeds of several basil varieties become gelatinous, and are used in Asian drinks and desserts such as falooda or sherbet. Such seeds are known variously as sabja, subja, takmaria, tukmaria, falooda, or hột é. They are used for their medicinal properties in Ayurveda, the traditional medicinal system of India.

Other basils

See List of basil cultivars
Several other basils, including some other Ocimum species, are grown in many regions of Asia. Most of the Asian basils have a clove-like flavour that is generally stronger than the Mediterranean basils. The most notable is the holy basil or tulsi (Tamil: கி௫ஷ்ண துளசி), a revered home-grown plant in India. In China, the local cultivar is called 九層塔 (jiǔ-kéng-tǎ; literally "nine-level pagoda"), while the imported varieties are specifically called 羅勒 (luó-lè) or 巴西里 (bā-xī-lǐ), although [巴西里] often refers to another different kind plant--parsley.
Lemon basil has a strong lemony smell and flavour very different from those of other varieties because it contains a chemical called citral. It is widely used in Indonesia, where it is called kemangi and served raw, together with raw cabbage, green beans, and cucumber, as an accompaniment to fried fish or duck. Its flowers, broken up, are a zesty salad condiment.

Chemical components

The various basils have such different scents because the herb has a number of different essential oils which come together in different proportions for various breeds. The strong clove scent of sweet basil comes from eugenol, the same chemical as actual cloves. The citrus scent of lemon basil and lime basil is because they have a higher portion of citral which causes this effect in several plants, including lemon mint, and limonene, which gives actual lemon peel its scent. African blue basil has a strong camphor smell because it has camphor and camphene in higher proportions. Licorice Basil contains anethole, the same chemical that makes anise smell like licorice, and in fact is sometimes called Anise Basil.
Other chemicals helping produce the distinctive scents of many basils, depending on their proportion in each specific breed, including:
Basil, like other aromatic plants such as fennel and tarragon, contains estragole, a known carcinogen and teratogen in rats and mice. While human effects are currently unstudied, the rodent experiments indicate that it would take 100–1000 times the normal anticipated exposure to become a cancer risk.

Cultural aspects

There are many rituals and beliefs associated with basil. The French call basil "l'herbe royale". Jewish folklore suggests it adds strength while fasting. It is a symbol of love in present-day Italy, but represented hatred in ancient Greece, and European lore sometimes claims that basil is a symbol of Satan. African legend claims that basil protects against scorpions, while the English botanist Culpeper cites one "Hilarius, a French physician" as affirming it as common knowledge that smelling basil too much would breed scorpions in the brain.
Holy Basil, also called 'Tulsi', is highly revered in Hinduism and also has religious significance in the Greek Orthodox Church, where it is used to prepare holy water. It is said to have been found around Christ's tomb after his resurrection. The Serbian Orthodox Church, Macedonian Orthodox Church and Romanian Orthodox Church use basil (Macedonian: босилек; Romanian: busuioc, Serbian: босиљак) to prepare holy water and pots of basil are often placed below church altars.
In Europe, they place basil in the hands of the dead to ensure a safe journey. In India, they place it in the mouth of the dying to ensure they reach God. The ancient Egyptians and ancient Greeks believed that it would open the gates of heaven for a person passing on.
In Boccaccio's Decameron a memorably morbid tale (novella V) tells of Lisabetta, whose brothers slay her lover. He appears to her in a dream and shows her where he is buried. She secretly disinters the head, and sets it in a pot of basil, which she waters with her daily tears. The pot being taken from her by her brothers, she dies of her grief not long after. Boccaccio's tale is the source of John Keats' poem Isabella or The Pot of Basil. A similar story is told of the Longobard queen Rosalind.


External links

basil in Old English (ca. 450-1100): Eorþmistel
basil in Arabic: ريحان
basil in Min Nan: Káu-chàn-thah
basil in Belarusian: Базілік
basil in Belarusian (Tarashkevitsa): Базылік
basil in Bosnian: Bosiljak
basil in Bulgarian: Босилек
basil in Catalan: Alfàbrega
basil in Czech: Bazalka pravá
basil in Danish: Basilikum
basil in German: Basilikum
basil in Modern Greek (1453-): Βασιλικός
basil in Spanish: Ocimum basilicum
basil in Esperanto: Bazilio
basil in Persian: ریحان
basil in French: Basilic (plante)
basil in Galician: Asubiote
basil in Korean: 바질
basil in Upper Sorbian: Bazlik
basil in Croatian: Bosiljak
basil in Indonesian: Selasih
basil in Icelandic: Basil
basil in Italian: Ocimum basilicum
basil in Hebrew: ריחן (צמח)
basil in Haitian: Bazilik
basil in Latin: Basilicum
basil in Luxembourgish: Basilic
basil in Hungarian: Bazsalikom
basil in Malay (macrolanguage): Pokok Selasih
basil in Dutch: Basilicum
basil in Japanese: バジリコ
basil in Neapolitan: Vasenicola
basil in Norwegian: Basilikum
basil in Norwegian Nynorsk: Basilikum
basil in Occitan (post 1500): Basèli
basil in Polish: Bazylia pospolita
basil in Portuguese: Alfavaca
basil in Romanian: Busuioc
basil in Russian: Базилик душистый
basil in Sicilian: Ocimum basilicum
basil in Simple English: Basil
basil in Slovak: Bazalka pravá
basil in Slovenian: Navadna bazilika
basil in Serbian: Босиљак
basil in Finnish: Maustebasilika
basil in Swedish: Basilika (krydda)
basil in Vietnamese: É
basil in Turkish: Fesleğen
basil in Ukrainian: Васильки справжні
basil in Chinese: 羅勒
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