Another species given to us by the king of the herbs would be Lemon Basil. Having an unforgettable lemon scent, this herb brings new flavors to the food when used raw.
As you probably know from the previous articles, I am fascinated about the legends that surround this spice. Some people considered it sacred while others linked its name to superstitions and curses.
There are some creepy stories that involve the name of basil.
A well-known legend says that Salome, the daughter of Herod, requested her father the head of Saint John the Baptist on a platter in return of a beautiful dance she performed in front of the king and his guests. After receiving what she desired, the princess was horrified by the terrible smell and hid the head in a pot with basil. The plant’s flavor was stronger.
The origin of the exquisite basil scent has been defined in a wonderful and also macabre way by Boccaccio: after the death of her lover, a young lady buried his head in a flower pot in which she planted basil seeds after that. She watered the pot daily with tears, rose and orange water, thus the unmistakable flavor. Keats rewrote this theme in his poem “Isabella or the Pot of Basil”.
An Indian legend says that when she came to earth Tulasi, wife of the Hindu god Vishnu, turned into basil. Therefore, Indians avoid touching basil because it is considered sacred. When they still do it for good reasons, they pray and ask for forgiveness. Traditionally, the heads of the dead Hindus are being bathed in basil water and they have a basil leaf on their chest before being buried.
Gallic people also considered it sacred, so they collected the leaves only after following a ritual of purification.
Egyptians used it to embalm the dead, while in the Roman culture in addition to its use in cooking, basil was widely praised as a curative plant, able to heal the wounds. Pliny the Elder considered basil leaves to have a strong aphrodisiac effect, thus becoming a symbol of love, unlike medieval mythology, which thought it to be a symbol of hate.
Superstitions related to basil resisted much time, exceeding the ancient and Middle Ages. Even around 1800, some British residents in India wore neck collars made of basil branches to neutralize electrical impulses, believing that it can take away the lightning as it was believed in Hindu religion. In the same period, during eclipses, basil was placed in the water supply to prevent different contamination.
In these modern times, the superstitions are gone. But the extraordinary flavor remained. I have always wondered why there are so many aromas amongst the basil species. Until I found the explanation.
Basil varieties have different flavors because they contain a variable number of plant essential oils (also called volatile oils), which are combined in different proportions.
Strong clove scent of sweet basil is given by eugenol, which is the same chemical component of cloves.
The aroma of lemon and lime basil is due to the fact that these two varieties have a higher content of citral and limonene, which produce these effects in several plants, including lemon peppermint. Limonene is also “responsible” for the specific scent of the lemon peel.
African blue basil has a strong camphor aroma due to the high content of camphor and camphene.
Licorice basil contains Anethol, for example.
There are also other chemicals involved in the production of the flavors for distinct basil varieties, depending on the proportion found in each species:
- Cinnamic acid (the same compound as in cinnamon)
- Citronellol (the same compound found in geranium or roses)
- Geraniol (as in geranium)
- Linalool (a floral aroma also present in cilantro)
- Methyl-cavicol (which gives flavor to tarragon)
- Mirceni (laurel, myrtle)
- Pinene (which, as the name implies, is the substance that gives aroma of pine oil)
Lemon Basil is an annual herbaceous plant that reaches heights of 19-23 inches. It loves to live in the sunlight. Its flowers are white and the plant blooms in late summer. The leaves are large, fragrant, sharp green color, similar to Mediterranean basil. However, the leaf color is darker.
People from Indonesia often use it and call the lemon basil kemangi. They serve it raw, together with raw cabbage, green beans, and cucumber or as an accompaniment to fried fish or duck. Its flowers are highly appreciated in salads.
It also pairs well with:
- Seafood and shellfish
- Fruits, like apricots, berries or peaches
- Other spices like cinnamon