Hairy basil is a perennial herb that grows to an average of 30 to 45 centimeters in height and spreads about 30 centimeters wide. The narrow, bright-green leaves have serrated edges and are typically smaller and sturdier than those of common sweet basil. They also boast a fresh and spicy fragrance and sometimes have a slight purple tint. When the plant matures, spikes of lavender to dark-violet flowers grow at the tops of the reddish-purple stems. Hairy basil leaves, flowers, and stems are all edible and offer a bold flavor with spicy-sweet notes of anise and black licorice.
Hairy basil has notably high levels of vitamin A, which is beneficial for healthy eyes and skin, and vitamin K, which promotes bone health. It also offers significant amounts of vitamin C, magnesium, calcium, iron, and potassium. The seeds are edible, and they pack a nutritional punch of magnesium, calcium, and fiber. Basil is known for its essential oil, which includes compounds like eugenol and limonene that possess antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant properties.
Hairy basil is most often used fresh or cooked and is a popular ingredient in Southeast Asian cuisines like Thai, Cambodian, Lao, and Vietnamese. Unlike sweet basil, Hairy basil has sturdy and resilient leaves that stand up to prolonged heat and cooking. Hence, it's well-suited for infusing flavor into broths and soups, from traditional Vietnamese Pho to Thai green or Panang curry. While sweet basil may be used as a substitute in some recipes, Hairy basil is worth seeking out for more traditional dishes that highlight the spicy flavor and sturdy texture, such as Vietnamese spring rolls. Vice versa, Hairy basil may be used in place of common sweet basil to impart a bolder herb flavor with a licorice kick. Hairy basil works equally well in simmered dishes, like Taiwanese braised eggplant, high-heat wok stir-fries, and noodle dishes like pad Thai. It pairs well with chicken, beef, shrimp, tofu, eggplant, potatoes, bell peppers, tomatoes, eggs, rice, garlic, chili, oregano, mint, lemongrass, and coconut milk. Fresh Hairy basil leaves can even be used as a garnish and are aromatic in cocktails and beverages like lemonade or used in sweet applications like fruit salads, pairing well with mango, pineapple, watermelon, lemon, figs, and stone fruit. Try adding the flowers to salads, chopping the stems into rice, or soaking the seeds, similar to chia seeds, to use in puddings, smoothies, or desserts. Store fresh Hairy basil in a glass of water at room temperature after cutting the ends of the stems, like you would a bouquet of flowers, or wrap it in a paper bag and store it in the refrigerator for a week or two. Hairy basil can also be dried or frozen to prolong its use.
Hairy basil is available year-round.