You might have heard about holy basil and wondering if there is any particular difference compared to the most common sweet basil. Do Thai basil look different? Does it have a different taste? This article has you covered with all the differences you need to know to understand if you want to start growing both varieties at home.
Thai basil differs from sweet basil for its taste. Thai basil has a milder flavor with an extra licorice aroma that suits more East Asian cuisine. Thai basil leaves are firmer and longer than Genovese basil. Thai basil presents purple flowers compared to the white of a Genovese basil.
Is the taste so different that it might change their use on your dish? Does Thai basil use much more space than your normal (sweet) basil? Keep reading to find the answer to these and many more questions.
Everyone knows sweet basil (the regular basil, also called Genovese basil or Italian basil). Its green and tasty leaves are indeed used in many recipes. It is quite common, especially in the western world, and sold even in a small pot for a dollar or less in supermarkets (here a guide on how to turn those pots in durable basil herbs).
However, the sweet basil is only one of the 50+ varieties that you can find it. In recent years Thai basil is starting gaining popularity even in the western world. Indeed, this type of basil is well-known and established in East Asia.
Thai basil is a different basil variety from sweet basil (actually part of a different cultivar, for more read this University of Purdue document). So the differences are indeed quite remarkable. Let’s dive in.
Genovese basil has a distinct and robust taste that is a mix of anise, peppery, and a bit sweet. The chances are that you know very well the taste of Genovese Basil. Indeed, even if you did not grow it before you might have encountered and eaten in a large variety of dishes.
Thai basil taste is milder than Genovese basil. Moreover, Thai Basil has an extra aroma of licorice with spicy touch in addition to the anise background flavor that shares with the Genovese variety.
Genovese and Thai Basil are very easy to tell apart. Indeed they look pretty different, mainly because of their leaves and stem. Let’s dive into each of those aspects.
The most evident difference is on their leaves. Indeed, Genovese basil presents large, oval curly down leaves. Thai basil, on the other hand, has narrower, more prolonged, thinner, and often straight leaves.
Finally, also, when rubbed, those leaves act differently. Genovese basil leaves are less when rubbed, release an intense aroma (that will end up on your fingers) while this is not the case with Thai Basil leaves.
Genoves and Thai basil at the back of their leaves present corrugation due to the vein system.
Thai basil presents a purple stem, compared to the green one of the Genovese variety. Moreover, Thai basil stem is “hairy” compared to the smooth of one of the Genovese Basil.
Both of them, when grown, are quite rigid and can become woody at their end of life.
Sweet basil, at the end of its lives, produces seeds through small white flowers. On the other hand, Thai basil produces more colorful pink/purple flowers.
In both varieties, those flowers are pretty small (like a fingertip) and present the same shape.
Although both herbs variety looks impressive, it is essential to note that Thai basil is preferred for ornamental purposes. Indeed, if sweet basil is grown indoors mainly for its tasty leaves, a fair number of indoor gardeners grow Thai basil for its colorful aspect. Indeed, Thai basil is also classified as an ornamental cultivar, more in this publication from the University of Brasilia.
As a suggestion, I would not mind growing sweet basil and Thai basil side to side. The contrast of a purple-ish herb with a green one is lovely.
Regarding their flower, you need to remember that if you see them, then it means that your herb is going to die soon. Indeed, the flowering stage is when the plants prepare themselves to produce seeds. All its energy is focused on the production of seeds, leaving the leaves bitter (although edible, more discussed on why your basil leaves are bitter article).
Herbs, depending on how long they are biologically programmed to last, can be classified in perennial, annual and biannual. Annual are herbs that last only one season (around 4-5 months or up to a year if you prune them efficiently). Sweet basil is an annual herb.
On the other side of the spectrum, there are perennials. Those are plants that can live more than two years, and, during winter, they might go in “dormancy” during which their growth stops (or slows down) to then come back to life in a warmer period. Thai basil is a perennial herb.
However, this is true only if you avoid temperatures below 50F (10C). If not, your herb will die-off (behave as an annual) and not come back in spring. Remember, a perennial is usually as such only if kept warm during cold seasons.
Hence, you have a way higher chance to successfully grow Thai basil inside as a perennial. However, you should remember to pinch the flowering buds as soon as they appear to make your herb last longer and keep producing new branches.
Their different taste significantly affects their use in the kitchen. Indeed,
Thai basil is a staple of East Asia cuisine with a large variety of dishes you can prepare. Quite famous is the Thai basil chicken; here one of the countless recipes. Another famous Asian dish is the Thai larb (also known as meat salad), here the recipe.
On the other hand, sweet (Genovese) basil is a staple of Mediterranean cuisine, especially Italian. Countless are the plates that can give their best only with a generous presence of sweet basil leaves on it. Think about it as a topping on a pizza (here a Margherita recipe). What about in the bolognese sauce? Pesto, by far, is the most famous recipe where sweet basil is used (and also a smart alternative to store basil as detailed in this guide for preserving basil).
Can you do pesto with Thai basil? Although possible to do pesto with Thai basil, I do prefer to stick with sweet basil due to its stronger taste. If you want to try Thai basil pesto, you might need to adjust the recipe (just avoid to follow the sweet basil one by just replacing the Thai basil). Indeed, Thai basil as licorice and milder taste. Have a look at the video below for ideas:
Thai and Genovese basil significantly differs for their behavior to temperature during cooking. Genovese basil must always be added at the end of any dish you are preparing (during the cooling down process). Indeed, prolonged exposure to high temperatures will make the essential oil dissipate. So you might lose the anise/sweet taste in the dish. On the other hand, Thai basil deals very well with heat, and it is usually added at the beginning with all the other ingredients to release its flavor slowly.
Another cool aspect of Thai basil is that its seeds are often used to create tasty cold drinks. Some of them might adopt jelly powder (widely consumed in East Asia, here the video).
Another use that you might never hear of Thai basil leaves for dessert like ice cream. Indeed, its licorice taste makes it an ideal candidate for it. Some also add Thai basil seeds to the ice cream due to their ability to reduce water crystals in the mixture as detailed here.
Where to Buy Thai Basil?
Thai basil, although getting more and more widespread in the western world, is still far away to have even the same popularity (commercial wise at least) of the sweet (Genovese) basil. Hence, you will not often see potted Thai basil sold in supermarkets as it currently happens for sweet basil.
However, you can find packages of fresh Thai basil leaves (here a UK chain selling it, and here from Walmart) meant to be tossed in your favorite Asian dish. A pro tip: sometimes, those leaves have been manually removed from the herb, so it is not uncommon to find whole stems coming with a few leaves. Hence, there is a small change that you can grow back a whole Thai basil plant through propagation using those stems there by chance. Here a detailed guide on how to endlessly propagate basil through propagation.
If you are looking in growing Thai basil and you did not have a chance to find a whole plant/stem, then you might consider starting from seeds. In this case, given how easy they are to transport, and long shelf life, you can find Thai basil seeds in many gardening shops. In this case, you might check the “Sow Right Seeds“, (quite good ones) on Amazon.
Basil, independently from its variety, is a healthy food that you want to add to your diet, as discussed in this study from the University of Illinois. However, you might wonder if and how much the nutritional value of Thai basil differs from the one of sweet (Genovese) basil.
Thai basil presents 20% fewer proteins (3.2 g vs 4g each 100g of leaves) and 40% more carbohydrates (from 2.8g to 2g). However, do not overthink this. Indeed, even or such a large amount of laves you need to have (100g of leaves is many leaves), the amount of protein and carbohydrates involved is minimal.
Table1: Nutrients content in grams for each 100g of leaves
|Thai Basil||Sweet Basil|
More important is their vitamin content, which again accordingly to nutrionix is very similar among the two basil varieties. It is worth noting the high content of vitamin A. Even 10grams of basil leaves (not difficult to eat) brings you 10% of your recommended daily intake.
Table 2: Vitamine and mineral content in daily recommended % for each 100g of leaves
|Thai Basil||Sweet Basil|
Sweet basil and Thai basil, as also shown in the publication from the University of Purdue, grown more or less at the same rate, with a top hight of around 16-18 inches (up to 45cm).
However, this only applies if you leave your basil to grow without any harvesting strategy. On the other hand, if you harvest your basil (as detailed in 21 tips to grow massive basil), you will boost massive growth. This can lead to an herb even taller than 3 feet (around a meter), almost double their “normal” size.
Can Thai basil used in salsa sauce? Yes, it can be used, although the licorice taste might overtake. Moreover, differently from Genovese basil, Thai basil can be added from the beginning of the sauce preparation, rather than at the end.
Can Thai basil be used to infuse oil? Thai basil is an excellent herb to create infused oil by adding as well garlic, pepper, dried tomato. Thai basil can be either let set in oil or can be heated in oil first and then placed in a container to cool down. Here a video explaining the process that can also be applied to Thai basil.