Look. There are more than 100 varieties of basil that you might grow or use in your dishes. So no wonder if you want to know if they can be replaced in your recipes or what they look like if grown in your indoor garden. Here, I will learn how to distinguish (and choose) between holy basil and the regular supermarket basil (Genovese). Let’s dive in.
Regular genovese basil and holy basil are two different species basil that differ for: 1) appareance of leaves shape and flowers 2) taste, stronger for holy basil 3) recipes available and 4) lifespan of the two herbs. Genovese basil is more versatile than holy basil in recipes.
Now you know that they are different. However, how can you differentiate them?
In this article, when I talk about regular basil, I mean the one you can easily find in the supermarket. This is called Genovese or Sweet basil.
Here the catch: Holy basil, although belong to the same family and genus (Ocimum, no worries if you do not know about them) of regular basil, it is from a different species. This is called Ocimum Tenuiflorum, while regular basil belongs to the species of Ocimum Basilicum.
You have to know that Holy basil is called in many different ways due to its role in religion in Asia where is called Tulasi or Ocimum sanctum depending on the language.
This makes these two basil varieties quite different even if at first, they might look the same.
Holy basil is a bit more challenging to set apart from regular basil than other basil types (like holy basil, here for more). However, there are some details that you should pay attention to.
Stem: holy basil presents a hairy stem. Indeed, it is surrounded (when fully grown) by white and very thin a few millimeters long hair. This is not the case with regular basil, which stems are hairless.
Leaves margin: this is the most straightforward feature to look at to differentiate holy from regular basil. Holy basil leaves present tooth-like edges. This is not the case for regular basil, which leaves edges are smooth.
Leaves shape: holy basil are flatter than regular basil one that, on the opposite, tend to bend more downwards.
Flowers: this is the second feature that allows you to spot the easiest the differences between the two herbs. Indeed, holy basil flowers are white or pink/purple whilst the regular basil is always white, as discussed by the encyclopedia Britannica. The shape of each flower given by small petals arranged in tubular shapes is the same.
Info for the pro
Someone might claim that holy basil has purple leaves. Is this possible? Yes, it is.
Indeed, holy basil includes 4 types, although the one you can find more commonly in cultivation is “Sri Tulsi” and “Krishna Tulsi”.
Sri Tulsi presents green leaves (and it is the one in the photos) while Krishna Tulsi has purple leaves. Depending on the region you live (primarily India and East Asia), you can find one type or the other growing in a garden or even wildly without any special human care (just like a common herb).
Holy basil has a taste often described as peppery, with a background of clove and slight aniseed (or sweet). I personally found its taste close to allspice (also called Jamaica pepper). Some gardeners also reported that holy basil tastes like aluminum foil when eaten raw. This different opinion mainly depends on the different varieties of holy basil within this species.
Genovese basil has a similar peppery, clove-like taste. However, if eaten raw, I do prefer this type of basil than the holy basil.
Pro tip: the taste changes with the age of the leaf. Younger leaves are the tastiest. You can find them on top of the herb (and generally smaller in size)
Pro tip 2: differently from regular basil, holy basil taste gets stronger with heating during cooking
Holy basil and regular basil differentiate substantially in their culinary uses for two main reasons:
- Genovese basil is a staple (king of herbs) in the Mediterranean (mainly Italian) cuisine, while holy basil is adopted mostly (exclusively) in Asian cuisine.
- Holy basil is way less popular for culinary purposes. Indeed, only a few recipes are famous for using such herb. Indeed, for Asian dishes, Thai basil is way more used than holy basil.
Replace Holy Basil With Regular Basil in Recipes?
Finding holy basil in the western world can be extremely hard. Indeed, even restaurants might substitute Thai or regular basil for holy basil.
You can replace holy basil with regular (Genovese or sweet) basil; however, the plate will miss the strong peppery flavor that holy basil has. So, if you really want to eat and taste the same flavor you would do in Thailand, holy basil should no be replaced (even less with regular one).
Just to give you an idea, here I collected the recipes or holy basil and Genovese basil from some of the most popular recipe websites. As you can see the number of recipes available with Genovese basil is way more than for holy basil
|Source||Regular Basil (Genovese, sweet)||Holy Basil|
Hence, here the catch
If you want to grow basil for culinary purposes, do not choose holy basil, go for the regular basil you find in the store is ideal. If you still want to grow basil to prepare delicious Asian dishes, then you need to grow the Thai basil variety, not the holy one.
You have extra Genoves basil leaves, and you want to use them in some tasty dishes?
How could I not include the staple sauce of Italian cuisine? However, do not be fooled! Pesto can be used not only with pasta but also as a sauce for meat, fish, chicken, and vegetables. Check out the 8 alternative use of pesto for more. For the pesto recipe, you just need your basil leaves, pinenuts, garlic, oil, grated cheese, salt.
This is a dish of the Sicilian tradition. It was famous in the old days to be a dish reserved only to the poorest families due to their simplicity (and low costs of ingredients). Today everyone in Italy enjoys such a meal given its rich flavor dominated by eggplants, tomato, and basil.
Pasta allo scarpariello
This is a gem recipe, that you will probably not find if you are not Italian (or speak the language). It is a simple boiled pasta that takes a great flavor just with fresh basil, tomato, and cheese. The secret is on the way it is prepared.
The pasta indeed needs to cook also with the tomatoes. The cheese should also be added gradually along with some boiling water. The video below detailed shows all the processes. Even if you do not speak the language, the video is clear enough.
Pad Kee Mao
As many Thai cooks will tell you, holy basil is what defines the flavor of this dish. Pad Kee Mao, also known as drunken noodles, relies on a large variety of ingredients such as soy sauces (strong and medium), garlic, broccoli, chilies, and fish sauce, just to name a few.
It is not the easiest of the recipes, but it is delicious. It is one of my favorites as one of my best way to spend a chilled Saturday night with my family or friends. Here, below you can find the video from which I take the recipe when I prepare this plate (a bit long, but the presenter knows what she is talking about).
Thai basil can be used in case you are short of holy basil.
This dish is the holy basil chicken recipe for excellence, and it is quite famous in North America. Gaprao (or better spelled Kaprow) is the Thai name for holy basil. The taste is given by a fine paste made with chilies, garlic, soy sauce, and onion to a very finely diced chicken. The basil should be added at the very end of the recipe. The video below will guide you through all the steps for this tasty chicken recipe with holy basil.
Again, holy basil is key; however, if you are short of it, Thai would be fine. Do not use Genovese basil, though.
Holy Basil Tea: The King Of Tea
Let’s be clear here. You can make tea with practically any herb. However, holy basil tea is unique. Indeed, holy basil tea is likely one of the most famous due to its claimed health benefits, as discussed in many academic studies. However, if you are interested more in these potential benefits, have a read also to this blog that detailed what science really says in such studies.
Below is a video illustrating how to make holy basil tea.
Nutritional Facts: Similar
Introducing basil in your diet, independently from the claimed benefits of holy basil, is definitely beneficial. Hence, if you can, try to fit in your meals, even if it is not suggested by the original recipe.
|Nutrient||Holy Basil (source)||Regular basil (source)|
Let’s be honest, having an herb that can last only a year or less, it is not an ideal situation if you are aiming for a low maintenance indoor garden (and you should do, if you are starting out).
Genovese basil is an annual herb. Indeed, independently on how well you water it, after 10-11 months (if not way earlier) will flower, go to seeds and dry out.
Holy basil is a perennial herb. This means, as discussed in this perennial vs annual herbs If you are lucky enough to live in a region with winter temperature that never goes below 41F (5C), then you can leave your holy basil outside. However, if you live in places where the winter is harsh, your holy basil will die as not frost tolerant.
Here is the catch
If you want a long-lasting holy wherever you live, just grow it indoors.
Really, it is not difficult to find an unused corner where to place a pot. In case the light is a problem, you can easily find excellent grow light for a meager price like this one on Amazon that can be clipped in the border of a table or chair. Until you can guarantee a temperature between 50-90F (20 to 30C) for the majority of the time (and never below 41F, 5C), your basil will be fine.
No doubt that you might want to start growing your own basil indoors. I do it all the time, as you can see from the photo below.
As I always say to all my friends, start simple! Do not overcomplicate: start whenever you can with an already grown herb. Why? Because it went already all the stage from seedlings (whose growing requirements are different from the grown plant) and close to the harvesting stage.
For regular basil, it is straightforward to grow it from already established plants even if you live in the USA or EU. You can find whole potted herbs in the herb section of many supermarkets. You need to transplant it, as detailed in this step-by-step guide.
For holy basil, however, it is not common to find the potted version of it as it is not typically grown in the western world. The easiest solution is to look for a potted herb in your local nursery (ring them before going as it is not a very common herb to grow).
You can try to find those packages with fresh holy basil stems and leaves, perhaps in Chinese or East European supermarkets. If so, you give it a try to grow them by stem cutting. Root hormone, although not necessary, might help in this case.
Another approach, the one that you can definitely apply wherever you are, is to start growing from seeds. Indeed, many retailers, including Amazon here, sell high-quality holy basil seeds that you can buy in bulk for a few dollars. However, as always, the seed takes time to develop, and they require more commitment from your side (and patience) compared to an already grown plant.
Holy basil, although it has the name ‘basil’ on it, is a different species from the regular one you are used to. It has a stronger flavor and mainly used in Thai cuisine. It is quite famous with chicken dishes such as Pad Gaprao.
You will find way fewer recipes using holy basil as an ingredient (and the majority are for Asian cuisine) than Genovese basil. Hence, if you are growing basil for culinary purposes, the regular (Genovese) basil is the right choice for you. However, if you want the typical Asian flavor, holy is the way to go.
Do not forget that holy basil is very famous for its (not totally proven yet) health benefits especially, the tea made out of it.
As regular basil, holy basil is perfectly suitable for growing inside.
Holy basil is way more challenging to find in the western world, so you might consider growing it from seeds. However, give it a try to your local nursery, or supermarket for some fresh cuttings.
Do You Want Bigger Basil? 21 Pro Tips
You might be wondering if having pots with some soil and a few basil plants are enough to have a good harvest. No!
Is watering a problem? Heck yes! The majority of beginner gardeners (including myself) stumble on this.
Basil enjoys dry soil between watering. Hence, let the soil dry before you next watering. However, how do you define the moist level? Nothing special really, just use your finger.
How? Just have a look at tip #8 in the below guide.
Where does holy basil grow? Holy basil naturally grows in India and in many regions in the East and South of Asia. Thailand is famous for its significant widespread of such herbs. To notice that it does not withstand cold weather.
When to plant holy basil? Holy basil, as the other basil varieties, enjoy long light hours and warm environment. Hence, the best is to plant such herb in April/May so that when the seedlings are fully developed, the young grass can leverage the long hours and higher summer temperature to develop at its fullest.
Holy basil photo from Forest and Kim Starr
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