Tulsi, holy basil or Ocimum tenuiflorum is a flowering plant of the mint family and is considered sacred by Hindus. A tulsi pot with four sides used to be a fixture in the centre of the household. Even now, it is one plant that urban homes will grow in their apartment’s box grille. Tulsi vivah (wedding), a festival falling on the 11th day after Diwali, celebrates the wedding of Tulsi (revered as a goddess in Hindu mythology) with Shaligram, an avatar of Vishnu. This day signifies the end of the monsoon and the start of winter and officially kicks off the wedding season in India.
Holy basil, with its green leaves (Vana tulsi) or purple-black leaves (Krishna tulsi), is an easy herb to grow at home. The latter is said to have higher phenolic content and antioxidant capacity. Tulsi is an adaptogen, which means it enhances the body’s ability to combat stressful situations, reducing stress and anxiety. Phytochemicals in holy basil, such as eugenol, have been shown to reduce DNA damage caused by toxic compounds and help prevent some cancers.
Holy basil in powder form or as an essential oil is used in hair and skin care products for its anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties. The essential oil extracted from tulsi leaves has a characteristic aroma owing to the presence of eugenol, which is also present in clove oil.
My first brush with the uplifting fragrance of tulsi essential oil was in an artisanal soap brand. A variety of their handmade soap called “temple essence” had tulsi, camphor and gram flour. Holy basil essential oil is one of my top picks to infuse 100% natural strong herbal fragrance in soap. Incense cones (dhoop) with this essential oil are my favourite kind of everyday aromatherapy. A few drops of this essential oil can also be added to a diffuser.
The seeds of holy basil, called sabja or tukmaria, swell up when soaked in water and are used in drinks like falooda to add texture and visual interest. They are often confused with chia seeds due to their somewhat similar appearance and the capacity to absorb water and swell up. The woody stems of a mature tulsi shrub or ones that have died are used to make prayer beads or tulsi mala, which is used for chanting.
With its religious or medicinal association, tulsi hardly ever makes it to everyday cooking. A couple of leaves are usually plucked to sprinkle over any dish that is made as an offering to the gods (neivedya).
Holy basil is an easy, self-seeding herb to grow in the kitchen garden, and the leaves can be used to make more than just tea or kadha. The difference between Italian (sweet) basil and tulsi is in the chemical composition which gives each its distinct aroma and flavour. While the flavour of tulsi may not be welcoming in pasta or pizza, there are other ways in which tulsi can be put to culinary use.
Chopped tulsi leaves can be used in chana dal vadas, or as a flavourful garnish in salads and vegetable dishes. Tulsi can also be ground into a chutney along with coconut, ginger, chillies and fried gram. Use chopped tulsi and grated coconut to add a new flavour to cooked dals or to sundal (a dry preparation made of cooked dals or beans). Here are two recipes for you to get started.
CHICKPEAS TULSI SALAD
2 tsp olive oil
Half tsp grated ginger
1 tsp caraway seeds (shah jeera)
1 cup cooked chickpeas
Half tsp salt
Half tsp red chilli powder
1 tsp amchur (dry mango powder)
Quarter cup tulsi leaves, chopped
4-5 cherry tomatoes, halved
1 tbsp raisins
3 dates, finely chopped
6-8 roasted almonds, chopped
Juice of half a lime
Heat the oil in a pan. Sauté the grated ginger and caraway seeds for a few seconds. Add the cooked chickpeas, salt, red chilli powder and amchur. Toss well to coat the chickpeas with seasoning and spices. Allow it to cool for 10 minutes. In a large bowl, combine the sautéed chickpeas, chopped tulsi, cherry tomatoes, raisins, dates and chopped almonds. Finish the salad with a squeeze of lime.
TULSI MOONG FRITTERS
1 cup green moong
Half tsp salt
Half cup tulsi leaves
1 white radish
2-3 green chillies, chopped
1 tsp grated ginger
1 tsp coriander powder
1 tbsp white sesame seeds
2-3 tbsp oil
Soak the green moong in a bowl of water overnight. Drain and grind to a coarse paste with salt, using up to two-three tablespoons of water. Remove this to a bowl.
Chop the tulsi leaves. Peel and coarsely grate the radish, squeezing out any excess water. Add the tulsi and grated radish to the ground moong paste. Add the green chillies, ginger, coriander powder and sesame seeds to the paste and mix well to get a thick batter.
Heat the oil in a pan. Make small-sized fritters or pancakes using two tablespoons of the batter. Cook until one side is golden brown. Flip and cook the other side over a medium flame for one-two minutes until the fritter is cooked inside.
Serve hot as a starter with a pickle or chutney.
Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer’s latest book is Everyday Superfoods.