Tulsi, also known as holy basil, isn’t something you necessarily top your pizza with or serve with Caprese salad, even though it’s a basil nonetheless. What you do with tulsi couldn’t be more different.
Type of Food: Plant
Ocimum sanctum, or holy basil
Origins: Tulsi, the Sanskrit name for holy basil, translates to “the incomparable one,” is indigenous to India’s subcontinent. It’s a perennial that originated in north central India, but you can find it throughout southeast Asia.
**Why/how did we start eating it: **Tulsi has been used for both spiritual and medicinal purposes for thousands of years in Ayurveda, the traditional medicine of India. Tulsi is considered sacred. It’s thought of as an auspicious herb that’s grown outside homes in India, for protection and it’s offered at temples, says Mary Bove, N.D., and director of director of medical education at Gaia Herbs. “It has been used to nourish growth, health, spiritual purity and even a family’s wellbeing and prosperity,” she says.
Tulsi is an adaptogenic herb, which Bove describes as “a group of herbs that support the body’s natural response to stress via the adrenal system and HPA (hypothalamus-pituitary- adrenal) axis.”
How it’s used/ purchased: In the Western world, you’re most likely to encounter it in tea form. Dr. Josh Axe, a certified doctor of natural medicine, chiropractor and clinical nutritionist, notes that in Asia, tulsi tea is often drunk as a substitute for coffee. Holy basil is also available in capsule and tincture form; Gaia Herbs, for example, sells tulsi in all three formualtions. (The company also guarantees its products to be free of pesticide residues, microbes, and heavy metals.)
If you happen to be able to grow it, you can use the leaves and make a tea yourself or cook with it; it’s in the same botanical family as Italian or sweet basil, but Bove suggests you use it more sparingly because the taste is much stronger than the basil we’re all more accustomed to. “You can make a compound butter with it or mix it with ghee (clarified butter). You can also make a paste with black pepper to put on the skin,” she says, which can help with joint discomfort. Alison Czeczuga, education and communications manager for Gaia, says that the paste could have multiple uses, “due to its antiseptic qualities and linoleic acid content, so it’s helpful for anything from acne, to infections, to being used for ringworm.”
Let’s not forget that this is an herb, which means yes, you can cook with it. It might not be the easiest herb to find, however. Chef Rick Di Virgilio and his wife Shiva Patel own two restaurants in Houston with Indian-leaning menus—The Queen Vic Pub and Oporto Fooding House and Wine. “We sometimes infuse it into milk and use the milk to make special puddings. We also like to infuse it into water, and use the water to make rice, or as a base for stock,” he says.
Sensory experience: Because it’s in the same family as other basils—which happen to be in the mint family—it’s going to share some of those properties. However, tulsi is “spicier and more aromatic,” says Elizabeth Trattner, acupuncturist and doctor of Oriental Medicine in Miami Beach. Di Virgilio says that the leave have a “fuzzy texture and taste slightly astringent when eaten completely raw, which many believe is actually the best way to eat for your health.” Bove notes it’s more pungent than Italian basil, and even goes so far to as to say that it “tastes almost floral.”
Nutrition and other benefits: According to Elizabeth Trattner, an acupuncturist and doctor of Oriental Medicine in Miami Beach, Flordia, tulsi has been studied for myriad medicinal benefits, described as “antimicrobial, adaptogenic, antidiabetic, hepato-protective, anti-inflammatory, anti-carcinogenic, radioprotective, immunomodulatory, neuro-protective and cardio-protective.”
With all of those potentially positive effects, it makes sense tulsi would have an impact on the spirit, too. “Holy basil is uplifting for the mood and supports mental clarity,” says Bove.
Axe likes tulsi for a number of reasons and writes extensively about it on hi natural health website, but his favorite part of tulsi relates to its adaptogenic capabilities. “Herbs like tulsi help our bodies bounce back from these stressors, keeping cortisol levels low and, thus, preventing the development of stress-related conditions like insomnia, weight gain and leaky gut,” says Axe.
Carrie Havranek is a recovering music critic and part-time baker who writes about food, farmers markets, chefs and restaurants—and sometimes travel—from her home in Easton, Pennsylvania. You may have seen her work elsewhere in Edible Philly, the Kitchn, or Frommer’s.