Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About

Basils are a large and fascinating group of herbs. They’re members of the tropical genus Ocimum, which probably originated in Africa, and was domesticated in India. There are around 165 species in the genus Ocimum, several of which are eaten. Basil was known to the Greeks and Romans, took firmest root in Liguria and Provence, inventors of the popular basil purees called pesto and pistou, and was hardly known in the United States until the 1970s. The standard “sweet basil” of Europe and North America, Ocimum basilicum, is among the more virtuosic of the herbs, and has been developed into several different flavor varieties, including lemon, lime, cinnamon, anise, and camphor. Most varieties of sweet basil are dominated by flowery and tarragon notes, though the variety used in Genoa to make the classic sauce pesto genovese is apparently dominated by mildly spicy methyleugenol and clove-like eugenol, with no tarragon aroma at all. Thai basil (O. basilicum and tenuiflorum) tends toward the anise-like and camphoraceous; Indian holy basil (O. tenuiflorum) is dominated by eugenol.