Holy Basil vs Thai Basil: What is the Difference?

Basil is one of the most commonly used herbs, and for good reasons – it smells great and tastes even better! With just a few ingredients, you can turn basil into a spread, a sauce, and any other herbaceous addition to add a bit of lift and flavor to any dish. Not only is basil a great herb to cook with, but it is also incredibly easy to grow and very versatile. 

While many of us in America are familiar with regular basil, which has a number of names such as Italian basil, or sweet basil, Italian sweet basil, and Genovese basil. There are actually over forty different varieties of basil; each basil comes with its unique flavor.

Some are spicy or fruity, while others taste sweet or even like licorice. The leaves come in different shapes and sizes, and basil plants grow differently as perennials, shrubs, and annuals. 

Basil comes from the same herb family as mint, lavender, and rosemary. So, it is in excellent company.

While it can be exciting to explore different basil varieties, today, we will stick with two favorites commonly used in Thai cooking: Holy Basil vs Thai Basil.

Keep reading to learn more about each one!

Key Differences in Holy Basil vs Thai Basil

The main difference between holy basil and Thai basil is the different flavors they have. Holy basil has a spicy and peppery flavor, while Thai basil is sweeter in taste. Holy Basil and Thai basil are both popular herbs used in Thai cuisine.

Thai basil is more popular and widely used for its culinary purposes, while Holy basil is most commonly used for medicinal purposes, herbal tea, and Thai cuisine.

Holy basil is about two or three feet tall and has hairy stems with toothed-edged, green leaves and purple flowers.
Holy Basil Plant

What is Holy Basil?

Holy Basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum) is known as Tulsi and Kaphrao. Holy basil can also be called Thai holy basil, which can be confusing- as it is different than Thai Basil.

Holy basil is native to Southeast Asia. Holy basil is very much a part of the culture and religion throughout India. It is revered and used for religious purposes and is commonly used for medicinal purposes.

Different plant parts are recommended for treating different conditions, from the leaves to the seed; holy basil is considered to help heal many ailments, including stress.

Holy basil is also known as an adaptogen in Ayurvedic medicine, a substance that helps the body adapt to stress. Adaptogens help support the negative effects of stress in the body, maintain stable blood sugar levels, and promote longevity.

While holy basil does not have the same distinctive purple leaves as Thai Basil, it is easy to identify if you know what you are looking for. It grows to about two or three feet tall and has hairy stems that produce toothed-edged, green leaves that are larger than Thai Basil leaves, and flowers are white or pink/purple. A strong giveaway is its strong aroma that mimics its clove and peppery taste. 

Cooking and Holy Basil Flavors 

Holy Basil is known for its pepper flavor and clove-like taste and is not typically used for cooking. Except in Thailand, Holy basil is known as ‘Bai gkaprow’ and is commonly used in Thai cooking.

Holy basil is often used as an herbal tea to provide antioxidants and is known to have antibacterial, immune-stimulating, antiviral, and stress-relieving properties. Many cultures have been using it to support their body’s natural defenses and fight off germs and other stressors. 

How To Grow Holy Basil 

Holy basil is incredibly easy to grow, and it can be kept indoors all year long. It grows best in a small and portable container filled with light soil that contains plenty of organic materials and drains easily. However, if it is too difficult to get your hands on that, any moist soil with proper drainage will be fine for your holy basil plant. 

This herb loves the sun and wants to spend about five hours each day enjoying its light. If you are planning on planting more than one plant, be sure to space them about two feet apart to allow for proper circulation. 

Thai basil has green pointy leaves that are shiny and somewhat glossy looking. Delicate purple stems with a small purple flower.
Thai Basil Plant

What is Thai Basil?

Thai basil (ocimum basilicum) has many referencing names, such as Thai Sweet Basil, hot basil, Anise/Licorice Basil, and Bai Horapa. It is known as purple basil and is an absolute staple in Southeast Asian cuisine.

This herb is noted for both its appearance and its flavor. Because it is so distinctive from other forms of basil, it took on the name of its origin country, Thailand. So, what makes Thai Basil such a special variety? Let’s take a look!

Thai basil is typically identified by its beautiful and delicate purple stems, which are relatively small and show off various tones of both green and purple. Some compare the look of Thai Basil leaves to slightly larger mint leaves – all of which are shiny and somewhat glossy looking. 

Thai basil can be found in a specialty Asian market or grocery store that tends to serve Southeast Asian populations, or you can consider growing it at home, so fresh Thai basil leaves are always readily available.

Cooking and Thai Basil Flavors 

Both the leaves and edible flowers of Thai basil have a distinctive smell, a mix of a distinct basil scent and strong licorice that is sweet.

Thai basil is a great herb to cook with, especially with high heat dishes, as this is where its flavor really starts to come through when cooked.

Thai Basil has many culinary uses, working well with many different dishes. A few popular uses are adding it to drunken noodles, garnishing beef, a Thai basil chicken, or chicken curry are some of its best pairings.

Thai basil also works well in pesto, which can be used as a sauce and a spread. Thai basil pesto pairs well with pasta and is easy to make by mixing together crushed garlic, pine nuts, salt, Thai basil leaves, olive oil, and a bit of hard cheese.

Some may get Thai basil confused with cinnamon basil which is also a very common herb in Thai cooking. However, cinnamon basil has a different flavor, with notes of cinnamon rather than the licorice notes Thai basil has. Thai basil also performs well in high-heat dishes, while cinnamon basil does not handle being cooked very well.

How to Grow Thai Basil 

This plant can grow up to three feet tall! As a tender perennial, it is important to take proper care so that you can have a healthy and fruitful plant year-round. Once it begins to get cold outside, it is time to bring this one in. After all, it is a tropical plant. If you live in a warmer climate all year with no chance of frost, you can keep Thai Basil outdoors. 

For your plant to grow healthy, it must be in fertile soil with proper drainage and a pH ranging from 6.5 to 7.5. Ideal sunlight per day ranges between six and eight hours. Thai basil has a low germination rate, so putting six to eight seeds in each pot is recommended. Be sure to remove any flowers that begin to appear, as you want your plant to focus on leaf production. 

A Few Tips For All Basil Plants 

Having fresh basil leaves readily available can add incredible flavor to many dishes. There are a few things to keep an eye out for whenever you are growing any form of basil. First and foremost, ensure that your soil has sufficient nutrient levels and provides enough water to your plants. This is especially important for your plants’ potassium consumption, as the soil is the only source for this mineral.

Basil plants typically do not fare well in chillier temperatures. If you are nervous about frost or cooler temperatures, bring your basil plant inside, or provide some protection against the cold. One of the most important things to look out for is dark spots and blotches on your plant’s leaves. These spots are a sign that something is wrong, much like the issues just mentioned. However, they can also be a sign of an infection that must be tended to save the plant. 

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Author Biography

Karla Kueber is a Certified Evidence Based EFT Practioner and Health Coach, with a double Masters Degree in Education. She works with people to overcome emotional eating, curb cravings, and overcome resistance to eating new healthy foods. You can learn more about coaching with her here.