Holy Basil Vs. Basil: SPICEography Showdown

Holy basil and basil are just two of the numerous basil varieties that are used for a wide range of dishes, not just Italian food. Holy basil is also called tulsi, while basil is otherwise known as sweet or Genovese basil. The two species of basil can sometimes look similar despite some significant differences. The SPICEography Showdown below will provide more information on holy basil and basil.

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How does holy basil differ from sweet basil?

Holy basil and basil have different appearances. The fact that they differ in their appearance doesn’t mean that the appearance is always dramatically different — you may have to look closely to tell them apart. The first place to look is at the edges of the leaves; holy basil leaves are jagged like a saw blade. The stems are also a good indicator of species; holy basil stems are hairy. Along with the smooth leaf edges and hairless stems, basil has a more delicate appearance with floppier leaves.

Holy basil and basil differ in their availability to Western consumers. Holy basil is difficult to find in many places and may not be available outside of Asian grocery stores, and even they may not carry it. Basil is a common culinary herb that you will find easily in most American and European grocery stores. Usually, basil is available in both fresh and dried forms.

Holy basil and basil have different places of origin. Holy basil is native to India, where it has religious significance to Hindus. The importance to their religion is the source of the holy in the name. Basil is from the Mediterranean region and is used entirely for culinary purposes.

Holy basil and basil have different flavor profiles. Both share a similar minty basil flavor, but holy basil also has a strong peppery taste with notes of clove; basil is simply sweet with hints of anise and citrus.

Holy basil and basil have different reactions to heat. Holy basil releases more of its flavors when heated; basil is flavorful in cooked and uncooked preparations.

Can you use holy basil as a substitute for sweet basil? And vice versa?

Holy basil can work as a basil substitute though it will be better for some applications than others. Holy basil will is a better substitute if you plan to cook it as opposed to serving it raw. Holy basil will still work in the raw dishes, but the difference may be more noticeable. When replacing basil with holy basil, start with about half the amount that the recipe states for basil and increase to taste.

Basil will be fine as a holy basil substitute for most — if not all — applications. Because it is milder and sweeter, you will want to use more of it when you want to replace holy basil. Try about 1.5 times the amount the recipe requires for holy basil when using basil as a substitute.

When should you use holy basil? And when should you use sweet basil?

Holy basil is popular as a tea herb. Holy basil tea is consumed mainly for health reasons — it is said to improve blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Holy basil is not used for cooking in most places outside of Thailand, where it is a staple in many dishes including drunken noodles also known as pad ki mao and the chicken stir-fry pad krapow, also called pad gaprao.

Use sweet basil in Italian dishes like tomato pasta sauce and pesto. Because its leaves are more delicate, it is a great option for salads and similar raw applications.