Basil is a culinary herb prominently featured in Italian cuisine, and also plays a major role in the Southeast Asian cuisines of Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. The plant tastes somewhat like anise, with a strong, pungent, sweet smell.
There are many varieties of basil. That which is used in Italian food is typically called sweet basil, as opposed to Thai basil, lemon basil and holy basil, which are used in Asia. While most common varieties of basil are treated as annuals, some are perennial in warm, tropical climates, including African Blue and Holy Thai basil.
Basil is originally native to Iran, India and other tropical regions of Asia, having been cultivated there for more than 5,000 years.
And, something interesting for you Harry Potter fans:
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.
There were a few other interesting things I learned about basil. For example:
* Scientific studies have established that compounds in basil oil have potent antioxidant, anti-cancer, anti-viral, and anti-microbial properties.
* It is traditionally used for supplementary treatment of stress, asthma and diabetes in India.
* Jewish folklore suggests it adds strength while fasting. (Hmmm...)
* In Europe, basil is placed 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.
* 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.
So whether you love it, hate it or think it's of the devil, BASIL is our challenge ingredient. Have fun, and post your basil-riffic recipes by Sunday night.