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The heady fragrance of basil that greets me at the market is a sure sign that summer is here. It makes me yearn for my Italian favorites. At the top of my list are insalata caprese of basil leaves, delicate fresh mozzarella cheese and ripe tomatoes and pasta and vegetables enriched with pesto, the classic basil sauce with garlic, nuts, olive oil and Parmesan.
Italians and their French neighbors use basil with exuberance. But they are not alone; cooks far from the Mediterranean enjoy this aromatic herb, too.
Curiously, in India, where basil is believed to have first been cultivated and is grown extensively, it is not used in the kitchen.
Instead, Hindus offer basil leaves to their deities, according to Yamuna Devi, author of The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking (Bala, 1987).
People in Yemen, across the Arabian sea from India, have much in common with the Indians from a culinary standpoint, and they don't cook with basil either. At Yemenite Yom Kippur services we've attended, there have always been beautiful bunches of basil. Their fragrance is intended to revive congregants' energy.
But basil is not just for fast days. Old-time Yemenites like some of my husband's relatives carry sprigs of basil when visiting friends to enjoy its lovely aroma.
In Thailand, several varieties of basil are popular. Holy basil, originally from India and named thus because Indians considered it sacred, flavors seafood dishes, wrote Su-Mei Yu, the author of Cracking the Coconut (Morrow, 2000).
Thai basil, which has an anise-like flavor, is coarsely chopped for salads or added as whole leaves to curries and stir fries. Some feel the basil balances the chile's fire. Others say it lessens meaty and fishy smells. Thais even use the tiny seeds of a third type, lemon basil, in sweet drinks.
Penn Hongthong, author of Simple Laotian Cooking (Hippocrene, 2003), uses basil leaves like Thai cooks do. They provide a finishing touch to her red curry chicken, green curry beef, and tofu cooked with garlic, hot pepper paste and soy sauce.
Persians love the taste of basil but do not cook with it. Instead, they eat whole basil leaves with other foods. When I am served Persian kabob, even if I buy it as take-out food at my neighborhood Persian market, fresh basil sprigs are included to wrap with the meat in thin lavash bread. To begin meals, Persians set out a platter of herbs, including basil sprigs, mint and parsley, for rolling up with feta cheese in flat bread.
The Vietnamese have a similar custom. At the start of a meal, basil sprigs appear on an herb platter with cilantro, mint and lettuce leaves for eating with all sorts of dishes, from noodle soups to grilled seafood. Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, authors of Hot Sour Salty Sweet (Artisan, 2000), describe the platter as "an essential part of the Vietnamese table, especially in the south... The salad vegetables are used to wrap, to accompany, to enhance, or to alter the other dishes, or they are eaten simply on their own. The platter gives each person a chance to vary tastes and textures, mouthful by mouthful, as the various herbs... complement the cooked foods with fresh flavors."
The Chinese feel basil is healthful. "Basil has been used by Chinese doctors for centuries," wrote Nina Simonds, author of A Spoonful of Ginger (Knopf, 1999). "It is believed to invigorate the body and promote circulation... Basil tea is often drunk for indigestion."
Basil is not big in the Mideast, but there are exceptions. Armenians like it in salads resembling Israeli salad, and so do I. They put basil in bulgur wheat pilafs as well, a taste they share with the Turks, as well as in soups and moussaka.
American cooks, influenced by the Italians, adore basil. Seattle chef Jerry Traunfeld, author of The Herbal Kitchen (Morrow, 2005), even likes it in desserts, such as blueberries and watermelon in basil syrup. He advises keeping basil packed loosely in a bag in the refrigerator's vegetable compartment; it should last for 3 or 4 days.
Basil's fresh fragrance is best when the herb is raw. For cooked dishes, stir in basil at the last moment, off the heat. Traunfeld suggests using basil coarsely chopped or torn into pieces. I agree; and when the leaves are small, I use them whole, the Thai way.
MUSHROOMS AND BULGUR WHEAT WITH BASIL
Ripe tomatoes and fresh basil give this mushroom medley a bright flavor. Serve it as an appetizer, a light entree or an accompaniment for fish or chicken. The recipe is inspired by a Turkish bulgur pilaf in Istanbul la Magnifique by Artun and Beyhan Unsal (Laffont, 1991). The result recalls a risotto and is good served with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
3 or 4 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil or butter
1 small green or red pepper, diced
1 large onion, minced
3/4 cup medium bulgur wheat
1 1/2 cups water
Salt and freshly ground pepper
225 to 350 gr. fresh mushrooms, cut in thick slices
2 large ripe tomatoes, diced
2 green onions, chopped
4 to 5 Tbsp. coarsely chopped fresh basil
Heat 1 or 2 tablespoons oil in a heavy medium saucepan. Add green pepper and half of onion and cook over medium-low heat, stirring often, for 7 minutes or until they soften. Add bulgur and saute over medium heat, stirring, for 2 minutes. Add water, 1/2 teaspoon salt and pepper to taste and bring to boil. Cover and cook over low heat for 15 minutes or until water is absorbed.
Heat remaining 2 tablespoons oil in large skillet. Add remaining onion and saute over medium heat for 3 minutes. Add mushrooms, salt and pepper. Saute over medium-high heat, stirring often, for 3 minutes or until mushrooms are tender and any liquid in skillet has evaporated.
Add tomatoes, mushrooms, green onions and half of basil to pilaf and fold them in lightly with a fork. Cover and let stand for 5 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve sprinkled with remaining basil.
Makes 4 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast (HarperCollins).