Holy Basil – Bai Gkaprow
by Kasma Loha-unchit
See also Kasma's information on Thai Basil (Bai Horapa).
Holy Basil, or Hot/Sacred Basil (Bai Gkaprow): If I were to name the basil that Thai people love most, it would have to be bai gkaprow, or holy basil. Still a relative rarity in the Bay Area, I often have to drive far and wide to a few scattered ethnic shops that carry it on a semi-regular basis, so that I can indulge in a truly heavenly pad gkaprow (stir-fry with bai gkaprow or holy basil leaves). Almost all Bay Area Thai restaurants list this dish on their menus (their spellings may differ from mine), but they usually substitute with the with bai horapa for bai gkaprow (the menus should list the dish as pad horapa). Pad gkaprow can also be ordered in just about every restaurant and food shop you come across in Thailand, but there it is fresh holy basil that makes it taste so special.
This basil is used in simple stir-fries, and together with garlic, fresh chillies and fish sauce, it imparts a wonderful flavor to any meat or seafood you wish to toss up quickly in the wok. My recipe for pad gkaprow with chicken is also excellent with pork, shrimps and scallops. It is an easy recipe and has become one of the all-time favorites among my students, some of whom have resorted to growing their own bai gkaprow to ensure a steady supply of the tasty herb. If you should substitute a different kind of basil for your stir-fry, make sure to change the Thai name, too, by tacking on the name of the basil you use to the word pad.
Bai gkaprow is also used in profusion in aptly named pad kee mow ("drunken stir-fry") dishes, those very hot, garlic-and-basil-flavored dishes usually accompanied by Mae Kong (Thai rum) drinks or beer. The stir-fry itself is not drunken, but the partaker may end up inebriated from excessive attempts to douse the fire brought on by these dishes! Use bai gkaprow in large amounts especially when it is very fresh as it is a relatively fragile herb and can lose much of its fragrance after a few days in the refrigerator.
Thai holy basil has a noticeably different flavor than the variety sold as seedlings under the same name in many Western nurseries that carry specialty culinary herbs. It is spicy, not sweet. There are two varieties: a white (light green) and a red, which has a reddish purple cast around the stems and the underside of darker green leaves. The lightly hairy leaves of both kinds are jagged along the edges and are smaller and more fragile than Thai sweet basil (bai horapa), wilting easily. When freshly picked, the aromatic leaves hold a spicy, peppery bite and a delicious combination of basil and mint flavors. The zestful blend of fragrance and tastes becomes particularly pronounced in cooking; that's why it is preferable to cook with bai gkaprow rather than eat it raw. The peppery spiciness of holy basil has earned it the name of "hot basil" and it is identified as such in some Thai markets.
I prefer the more concentrated flavors of the red variety, the kind most used in Thailand that grows profusely everywhere during the wet season. The little herbs pop up along the fences of Mother's garden following drenching rains, and their appearance signals many scrumptious meals featuring dishes laced with their exquisite flavors. In the Bay Area – unless I grow it myself – I seldom have the luxury of a choice, as the red holy basil is apparently more difficult to grow in temperate zones and is, therefore, less readily available.
Other Southeast Asians also love holy basil, and during the hot summer months, you may be able to find big bunches of it at farmers' markets with ethnic stalls. Or, look in Southeast Asian markets located near communities where large numbers of Laotians, Thais, Cambodians and Vietnamese make their home. If you are not able to find fresh holy basil, try the dried leaves imported from Thailand in packages labeled either "holy basil," "kapao" or simply, "dried basil" – use only in combination with fresh basil. (If the package says "sweet basil," it usually is bai horapa.) Though not a complete substitute for the fresh, it gives a touch of the minty gkaprow taste when used together with some kind of fresh basil. Soak the dried leaves first to reconstitute; this will bring out more flavor during cooking than if you toss dried leaves into a stir-fry. Use cold tap water to soak the leaves because hot water will leach out some of its already compromised flavor. Remove the hard stems from the softened leaves before using, or your stir-fry will turn out "twiggy."
What makes bai gkaprow holy? One source attributes the name to a Biblical reference but does not specify which book or verse. Another source traces it to the Hindus in India, who believed this herb to be sacred and planted it around their religious shrines and used it in their cooking, but I have yet to come across Indian food flavored with holy basil. As a lover of bai gkaprow, I think its divine flavor is enough to warrant its title.
Our Ingredients Index contains links to many more Thai ingredients.
Grow your own basil! Check out the Growing Basil Blog.