Holy basil and ashwagandha are two Southeast Asian ingredients used in food and in Ayurvedic medicine. As far as their medical applications are concerned, they are both classified as adaptogens. As adaptogens, both are used to treat stress and stress-related conditions like insomnia but they are used differently. When it comes to using them in food, you will have a different set of considerations. We will examine each of these ingredients and what makes them useful in this SPICEography Showdown.
How does holy basil differ from ashwagandha?
Holy basil is considered holy in India and is a common herb in Thai cooking. The herb’s Latin name is Ocimum tenuiflorum, which is a spicy herb related to the sweet basil common in the West. The purplish leaves and stems of the holy basil plant are the parts used in cooking.
Ashwagandha is another plant entirely with the Latin name Withania somnifera. Ashwagandha — which is the Indian name — translates literally to “smell of a horse”. It lacks the flavor of clove and pepper that you get from holy basil. Instead, it has a bitter note along with a mild herbaceousness and the barnyard smell that its name denotes. Ashwagandha does show up in a few recipes but is not a common culinary ingredient. Its main use is in the traditional Indian practice of Ayurveda. It is the root of the ashwagandha plant that is typically used in medicines and cooking, not the leaves.
Can you use holy basil in place of ashwagandha and vice versa?
Both holy basil and ashwagandha are used in Ayurveda and have many of the same benefits, which means that you may be able to use one as a replacement for the other if you are looking primarily for the therapeutic effects. Ashwagandha does not have the appealing fragrance of holy basil, which means that a substitution will not work if you are using holy basil strictly as a culinary herb.
Ashwagandha is actually bitter with strong earthiness mixed in but not in a good way. Ashwagandha is a more potent adaptogen, so you can use it as a holy basil substitute if you are using it strictly as a supplement to relieve stress. Experts suggest that you combine them rather than try to substitute one for the other. The two in combination tend to enhance their respective qualities.
When should you use holy basil and when should you use ashwagandha?
Use holy basil for making Thai or Vietnamese food if you want a more authentic flavor. Holy basil is the herb of choice for dishes like pad gaprao and drunken noodles when they are made in Thailand. The fact that the herb is hard to find outside of Southeast Asia means that most Thai restaurants in the West replace it with Thai basil, which is sweeter than holy basil. Holy basil will give your dish the distinct peppery note that you get from true Thai food.
Use ashwagandha if you want to make Ayurvedic preparations like moon milk, which is a stress-relieving or sleep-enhancing beverage that typically includes turmeric as well as dairy or nut milk. It is sometimes used to make churna, which is a blend of ghee and seasonings that you can add to soups and other dishes.