Thai Basil

This all started with some idle musing on herbs and the differences between sweet basil and its Thai cousin. We’re all familiar with the former. You, like me, have probably got a slowly dying supermarket pot of it on the kitchen windowsill right now, a triumph of hope over bitter experience.

The Thai stuff is less well known but fairly widely available in Asian supermarkets (and in Waitrose!). But I hadn’t really tried doing much with it except adding it to stir fries. When I started wondering about what the two herbs had in common and where they differed, it occurred to me to try playing around with some classic Italian dishes, swapping out the sweet basil for Thai and adjusting a few other things accordingly.

thai basil tricolore salad

A Tricolore salad seemed the obvious place to start. With silken tofu replacing mozzarella as the creamy, bland element and soy sauce joining balsamic vinegar in the dressing. You sometimes get thinly sliced red onions on a Tricolore so I brought in a mixture of spring onions and crispy, fried bits. This is barely a recipe but it worked really well so I thought it was worth sharing.

“Thai” Tricolore Salad

Ingredients

  • Tomatoes (large or cherry)
  • Silken tofu
  • Avocado
  • Thai Basil
  • Spring onions, finely sliced on the diagonal
  • Crispy onions

For The Dressing

  • 2tbsp olive/rapeseed oil
  • 1tbsp sesame oil
  • 1tbsp soy sauce
  • 1tbsp balsamic vinegar
  • A few grinds of black pepper

Method

  1. Chop up the tomatoes, avocado and tofu and arrange them however you like.
  2. Put the vinaigrette ingredients together in a jar with a lid and shake vigorously until combined. Taste. Depending on the sweetness of the balsamic and saltiness of the soy you may need to add some sugar and/or salt. When seasoned to your liking, drizzle over the salad.
  3. Scatter over both types of onions and garnish with Thai basil.
thai basil tricolore salad

Ifs And Ands

  • I wanted this to be super simple - like the original - so the familiarity of the dish pointed up the few changes that had been made. But there’s plenty you could do. I got the idea for a soy/balsamic dressing from J. Kenji López-Alt’s fantastic book The Food Lab. I stripped it right back but his is delicious and worth trying too. Or swap out the soy for fish sauce.
  • The “Thai” name comes only from the basil. Other Asian flavours would work too. Gussy it up with coriander and mint. Finely slice a couple of chillis and add them to the garnish. Or try sweet chilli sauce in the dressing.

So all of that was buzzing round in my mind when I read David Chang’s piece in Wired on his “unified theory of deliciousness”. A lightbulb went on. Obviously he’s working on a way more elevated scale, but the idea of various dishes having cross-cultural “base patterns” really chimed with me.

So I tried playing around with another famous basil recipe. The most famous basil recipe I guess. Just transposed. Thai basil instead of sweet. Peanut butter instead of pine nuts. And fish sauce taking the place of parmesan in providing umami.

thai basil pesto

“Thai” Pesto With Rice Noodles (Serves 2)

Ingredients

  • 1 bunch thai basil
  • 4tbsp neutral oil (I used rapeseed but peanut would do admirably)
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled
  • 1cm ginger, peeled
  • ½ tbsp fish sauce
  • 1 tbsp peanut butter
  • 1tsp lime juice

To serve

  • 200g rice noodles

Method

  1. Set aside a couple of sprigs of basil for garnishing, if you are that way inclined, then put the rest, stalks and all, in a food processor with the oil and blitz. Getting it chopped and each bit coated in oil so the leaves can’t oxidise and turn black is the key to a lovely green pesto. https://food52.com/blog/17841-the-quest-for-the-genius-elusive-world-s-best-pesto-recipe
  2. Add the other ingredients and continue blending until smooth.
  3. Cook the noodles according to the packet instructions and drain.
  4. Toss with the pesto and serve with a sprig of basil on top.

Ifs And Ands

  • Again, I kept this really simple but you could add all sorts of things to the pesto. Coriander and lemongrass seem the obvious candidates.
  • Some of those crispy onions would make a great topping for textural contrast.
  • Try so instead of fish sauce to make it vegan. Or, if you're not bothered about that aspect at all, bulk things up with cooked prawns or chicken.