Cinnamon Basil: The Mexican Basil

Cinnamon basil is a variety of Ocimum basilicum, which is the sweet basil that you often see used in Western cuisine. The cinnamon basil variety is also called Mexican basil and some historians speculate that it might be native to Mexico where it is called albahacar.

Sweet basil is a relative of mint and most likely originated in India or China but has been cultivated for the last five millennia at least. Its use has spread far beyond the subcontinent and it can now be found all over the world. Ancient Egyptians used the herb to embalm and the herb has a well-documented history as medicine in other civilizations. For example, it was one of the main herbs used in Ayurveda. The Ancient Romans used the herb as a digestive aid.

After first making its way to Europe from India, cinnamon basil would reach Mexico via the Spaniards. It thrived in Mexico due to the warm climate and the fact that the herb is easy to grow. Cinnamon basil has even been grown in space. It was aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor and was also used on the International Space Station.

Today, cinnamon basil is a common herb in Mexico and is commonly found growing in home gardens. In Mexico, cinnamon basil is used more as a medicinal herb than a culinary one.

Cinnamon basil flavor profile

Cinnamon basil does not have much of the licorice and anise flavor that you might expect from sweet basil; instead, it contains the compound methyl cinnamate. Methyl cinnamate gives it the distinctive warm cinnamon flavor that many find pleasant.

Health benefits of cinnamon basil

Like other basil varieties, cinnamon basil is rich in a variety of important nutrient categories including:

  • Vitamins: Sweet basil varieties like cinnamon basil are rich in vitamins A, C and K.
  • Minerals: Basil contains important minerals like magnesium, potassium and calcium.
  • Linalool: Linalool is a terpene found in many herbs and spices and that has an array of health benefits.

You can use cinnamon basil to treat or prevent potentially serious health conditions like:

  • Inflammation: Cinnamon basil is prized for its anti-inflammatory properties, which is one of the benefits that make it a valuable traditional medicine. The linalool and other anti-inflammatory compounds in cinnamon basil make it beneficial for treating symptoms of arthritis and other conditions characterized by inflammation.
  • Stress: Cinnamon basil tea is often consumed to help counter stress and to promote sleep.
  • Poor digestion: Like other basil varieties, consuming cinnamon basil can be highly beneficial for digestion. The cinnamate it contains can be useful for treating both constipation and diarrhea.

Common uses

The unique flavor of cinnamon basil makes it particularly versatile. Common uses include as a tea herb. You can also use it in desserts and add to fresh fruit the way you might add chopped mint; it serves as both a flavoring and a garnish.

Like other types of basil, you can use cinnamon basil to flavor meat dishes and savory sauces. In Thailand, cinnamon basil is called bai maengluk and is used as an aromatic herb. You can add cinnamon basil to a simple syrup that you can use in cocktails. Because of its pungent bark flavor, cinnamon basil is great as a substitute for intense basil varieties like Thai basil.