Thai Basil – Bai Horapa
by Kasma Loha-unchit
See also Kasma's information on Holy Basil (Bai Gkaprow).
Thai Sweet Basil, or Anise/Licorice Basil (Bai Horapa): This tropical variety of sweet basil provides the unusual basil flavor present in so many Thai dishes that it has come to be identified as "Thai basil" in America, even though the Vietnamese and Laotians also use lots of it in their cuisines. Its leaves are deep green, smaller and not as round as Western sweet basil. They grow on purplish stems, topped with pretty, reddish purple flower buds. Both leaves and edible flowers are sweetly perfumed with a mix of a distinctly basil scent and that of anise or licorice. Therefore, it is, therefore, sometimes referred to as "anise basil" or "licorice basil," though it is not the same as the Western strain of these basils stocked by local plant nurseries.
Plentiful in Thailand, bai horapa is eaten almost as a vegetable. It is used in large quantities, in whole leaves and sprigs, in many types of dishes, including curries, stir-fried dishes, salads and soups. I am reminded of the wonderful clam dish my mother frequently made during my youth, a favorite of the family. Big handfuls of this basil were tossed in the hot wok with the very sweet, succulent and tasty thin-shelled hoi lai ("clams with a patterned shell"), garlic, roasted chilli paste (nahm prik pow) and fish sauce – delicious! See Clams Stir-fried with Roasted Chilli Sauce and Basil (Hoi Pad Nahm Prik Pow).
Bai horapa is now readily available year-round wherever there is a sizable Southeast Asian population to support a market of its own. As demand for this great-tasting basil increases, specialty produce markets and gourmet grocery stores are beginning to add it to their herb selections. It is also easy to grow, and seed packets can be purchased from local nurseries, ordered from national seed catalogues or ordered online. You can root a fresh stem easily by placing it in a glass of water outside the refrigerator. As with many leafy herbs, this basil can be kept fresh by placing it in a glass with the cut ends in water, covering it with a plastic bag and storing it in the refrigerator. Or, you can wrap the herbs in paper towels before bagging them in plastic for refrigerating. They will stay fresh for about a week.
Our Ingredients Index contains links to many more Thai ingredients.