Sunday, April 23, 2006

Weekend Herb Blogging - Thai Basil


For Kalyn's Weekend Herb Blogging I'm going to take a look at Thai Basil (Ocimum basilicum, bai horapa in Thai, sometimes called anise basil or licorice basil). Thai basil has bright green leaves and purple stems, with a distinctive aroma that immediately makes me think of Thai food (the herb is also commonly used in Vietnam and Laos). The herb has a strong anise-licorice flavor on top of the standard basil flavors.

Basil and Mondays
According to a section of the Thai Royal Flora Expo web page, auspiciousness in the Thai garden is often more important than beauty or utility.

The commonest sanctions relate to auspicious names. "‘Noon"’ in khanoon (jackfruit) means "‘support"’, so it often stands reassuringly behind a house. The pungent durian fruit contains the syllable rian (learn), which augurs well for knowledge. Phutsa (jujube) and mayom (star gooseberry) planted together in the west of a compound mean "‘eternal popularity"’ from their components "sa"’ and "‘yom".

Uncannily, the luckiest tend to provide food, shade, flowers, hedging or useful by-products. Unfortunately, taboos discriminate against practical plants with inauspicious names or associations, like the haunted takian tree which shipbuilders prize for its water-proof wood. Since lanthom (frangipani) sounded like rathom (misery), this fragrant beauty languished largely in temples, until rehabilitated for wider use through HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn re-naming it leelawadee.

Plants are also associated with days of the week in Thailand. Sunday, for example, is for "fruit-bearing trees, kitchen garden plants and herbs and roots and tubers." Monday is basil's day, the day of vegetables and culinary herbs. So next time you have a "case of the mondays" (sound clip), just think of a rich, spicy Thai curry fragrant with basil to cheer up a bit.

Thai Basil in the Kitchen
One of my favorite cookbooks is Thai Vegetarian Cooking by Vatcharin Bhumichitr. Most of the dishes I have tried have been instructive and delicious, and my favorites include the pad thai, hot and sour soup with mushrooms (tom yam het), coconut-cauliflower-galangal soup (tom ka), lemongrass spicy vegetables (pat pet takrai) and the various curries.

A recent favorite is what Bhumichitr calls "Dry Curry Mushrooms" (penaeng het). Like many Thai dishes, it is relatively straightforward to prepare, but requires some endurance.


Dry Curry Mushrooms
Adapted from Thai Vegetarian Cooking by Vatcharin Bhumichitr

Making the curry paste
The first step is to make a curry paste. The traditional tool for this is a mortar and pestle made of wood, rock or clay. It is possible that a blender could work--a food processor definitely wouldn't because of its slow blade speed--but I'm skeptical because the paste is thick, granular, and composed of fibrous foods. And since the paste is initially cooked in hot oil, adding water to keep the mixture moving in the blender jar could lead to unwanted consequences.



Ingredients
10 dried long red chilis, deseeded, soaked in warm water for 10 minutes, then chopped fine
5 small shallots, finely chopped
2 T. garlic, finely chopped
1 T. galangal root, finely chopped
1 t. ground coriander seeds
1 t. ground cumin seeds
About 4 in. of lemongrass stalk (the inner portion), finely chopped
2 T. roasted peanuts

Makes about 2/3 cup
(Unit conversion page)

For a long time, my curry paste technique was terrible, resulting in poorly ground ingredients and much frustration. But then I found Pim's thoughtful essay On the Pounding of Curry Paste. Now I take my time and tackle it in stages: I finely chop the major ingredients (shallots, garlic, galangal, lemongrass), then pound them individually in the mortar until reasonably smooth. Eventually, I mix some of them together, continue pounding, and so on until I get the texture I want (or lose patience).

For the chilis in this curry paste, I used small dried red chilis from the Indian grocery. Their heat level is not as intense as a Thai chili, but still potent. I don't know if these are the "right" chilis, but they worked fine for me.





Preparing the vegetables and seasonings

Ingredients

1/2 cup coconut milk
2 cups of mushrooms (I used a mixture of white and fresh shiitake)
1 cup long beans, chopped into 1-inch lengths
2 makrut lime leaves, cut into extra-fine slivers
2 T. light soy sauce
1 t. sugar
1 T. roasted peanuts, roughly chopped
15 Thai basil leaves




Assembling the curry
Heat about 1 T. vegetable oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. When it is hot, carefully add about 1 T. of the curry paste, then stir for about 30 seconds to lightly fry it. Pour in the coconut milk, cook for 30 seconds, then add the long beans and mushrooms. When the vegetables are as tender as you like them, add the soy sauce, slivered lime leaves and sugar. Stir, add the peanuts and Thai basil leaves, stir again, and serve.

Variations: the mushrooms and beans could be replaced by your favorite vegetables, or whatever is in season. Pre-fried tofu is also a good addition.


A few more links about Thai basil: Kasma Loha-unchit (an Oakland-based cooking/culture teacher), Oregon State Food Resource, and GourmetSleuth.


Indexed under Thailand, Main Dishes
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3 comments:

Kalyn said...

What a great post. The photos are wonderful. I think Thai basil is really wonderful tasting.

Mindy T. said...

Hi Marc. I'm a big fan of long beans, which I generally buy at Monterey Market. I'll bet it's one of your favorite places to shop, too. Of course the Bay Area in general is foodie heaven.

I've been writing veg. cookbooks for years and blogging about vegetarian cooking for a few months. Hope you'll pay a visit, and thanks for the long bean inspiration!

http://mindycooks.blogspot.com

Anonymous said...

Marc...thanks for the great recipe. I've been searching for a way to preserve my Thai Basil into a marinade. Something that will keep on the shelf or fridge for a while. Any suggestions?

Vicki