Finding holy basil in the states is often pretty hit-or-miss. In Wisconsin we could occasionally find this herb in local Vietnamese, Hmong, or Thai markets in the summertime. These days in Philadelphia, I am seeing it around at Cambodian markets in North Philly (it will take some time to see if this will be a regular offering). Often it’s not as fresh as you’d like it to be, and sometimes you excitedly buy it, but then realize that you bought an even more obscure Southeast Asian herb that is NOT holy basil.
Today I found a beautiful fresh bag of holy basil at a local shop (New Mee Wah Market) over on Old York Road. It was a buck. After finding it, I decided to cook it tonight with some long beans and other standard ingredients that I already had at home.
Thai restaurants are ubiquitous in the US, but I have yet to find one that serves this dish with this herb. This is striking because in Thailand it is about the most common thing you could possibly find. I’ve eaten it for breakfast, lunch and dinner, for bar food, street food, and even on the delightful Nakhornchai Air bus service that connects Bangkok to Isaan (this bus service is more like an international flight, complete with a stewardess, reclining massage chairs, video games, and food service). Because holy basil is so common there but so rare here, every time I eat it I am instantly transported back to Isaan.
I will show you how to make a simple holy basil stir fry. As I said, this is about the most common thing you could ask for in Thailand. There the dish is known simply by the name of the herb. Holy basil in Thai is kaphrao (pronounced, “ga-pow”). When you order it, you can say pad before it (like “pad Thai”– “Pad” means “fried”). Beware that many US restaurants actually DO have pad kaphrao on their menus, but in my experience they generally use a different herb in its place. They tend to use the more commonly available “Thai Basil“, or horapa. That is delicious too, but it is NOT the same.
Pad kaphrao is most commonly fried with Thai chiles, garlic, onion, long beans, and a ground or sliced meat. A memorable variation is diced crispy-skin roasted pork belly, re-fried as instructed below–for when you can’t indulge enough. Tonight I will make this with ground pork, as that’s what I have on hand. Here we go…
If you go looking for holy basil in Philly, it might be best to ask someone at the shop if it is what you think it is. It is often not labeled at all. In Cambodian the name is somewhat similar to the Thai name “ga-pow”. Update: the Khmer for this herb is “mreah prow”, ម្រះព្រៅ
Recipe: I realized I didn’t give you measurements for things. I used 4 garlic cloves, 4 fresh Thai chiles (adjust if you can’t do spicy), 1/4 a big white onion, about 1 Tblsp fish sauce, 1 tsp sugar, 2 tsp black sweet soy sauce (Thai brand), about 3/4 lb of ground pork, and that plateful of holy basil (approx. 1/3 cup packed). 4 long beans and one egg. Again, just taste for seasonings before dumping the leaves in, and it will be great.