Holy basil, my long lost love

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.


The elusive bai kaphrao, or holy basil

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.


my version of heaven with a crispy egg on top

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…


Ingredients for this dish, minus the ground pork off camera


Mash the Thai chiles with garlic in a mortar and pestle. It is amazing how much of a difference this step makes in the flavor of the dish. Slice the garlic and pepper and it will NOT BE THE SAME.


my nostrils are telling me, “yes this is the smell.”


pick the holy basil leaves and flowers off the stem. if the stem is young and limp, that is fine to add in too.


chop up 3 or 4 long beans. green beans can also be used as a substitute, but they have a slightly different flavor


(optional) fry up a crispy egg. I like to splash hot oil over the top until the edges are very crispy but the center is still runny.


take out some of that oil and fry the garlic and chile paste. (caution this will make you cough and sneeze)


add the meat and stir frequently to incorporate flavors and get rid of big lumps [cough, sneeze…] yep, that smells right


add beans and onions


add fish sauce (this is the salt in the recipe. if it needs salt, add more fish sauce), black sweet soy sauce (this blue bottle), and little sugar


when the meat is just cooked, taste for seasoning. Should be pretty full flavored. If it isn’t, adjust with more salty or more sweet.  As you end the frying process, dump the basil leaves in and stir to wilt the leaves. Turn off the heat.


Hopefully you remembered to cook your jasmine rice to form a nice placeholder for your stir fry. Oh, and top with your crispy egg if you like (see top).

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.

About David Dettmann

Food obsessed and frequently nostalgic.
This entry was posted in - Featured Food Discoveries, - Recipes, Thai/Lao food and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Holy basil, my long lost love

  1. Pingback: Three essential Cambodian flavors and sour beef soup | Asian Markets of Philadelphia

  2. Jeff says:

    I’ve been looking for Holy Basil in the area for awhile, so I’m glad I stumbled upon your post. I had no idea there were so many of these smaller Asian-boutique groceries outside of Chinatown too. I’m Taiwanese, but recently have been exploring other Asian food cultures with Thai food being my favorite. Keep on sharing your Asian foodie adventures in Philly!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Jeff, thanks for your comment. I can find it regularly at my nearest market (in a box in the refrigerator), Seng Hong market on Old York Road, and it is also fairly regular at a few of the markets on 7th street (Rising Star, Chai Hong, and Koh Kong Grocery). Strangely, I don’t see this item at the larger markets (i.e. on Washington Ave). Beware, some markets will have something that looks similar but has sharper leaves and a more different flavor, lemon basil. I found this page recently with photos to help identify the basils (and they are calling lemon basil “Lao basil”), I’ll post something on lemon basil later on, it is delicious in soups. Until then: http://www.foodfromnorthernlaos.com/2010/08/04/basil/


  4. Pingback: Thai basil and green curry with chicken | Asian Markets of Philadelphia

  5. Pingback: Sticky rice as thickener and Isaan chicken stew | Asian Markets of Philadelphia

  6. Pingback: The fresh herb section | Asian Markets of Philadelphia

  7. Pingback: Three essential Cambodian flavors and sour beef soup | Asian Markets of Philadelphia

  8. Samuel says:

    Is it possible to eat all parts of the plant or only the leaves?


    • Hi Samuel, all parts are edible, but stems can be woody. Generally for Thai stir fries and Cambodian soups leaves, tender stems and flowers are used. The flower buds have a slightly more concentrated flavor. We usually mash the flowers in the mortar along with garlic and chile to amp up the holy basil flavor


      • Samuel says:

        Hi David!
        I did the Pad Kaphrao Gai(Chicken).
        It tasted fantastic!
        By the way, I live in Thailand, here is very easy to get the herbs at the market.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ooh I’m jealous. I used to live in Khon Kaen, and yes, there were so many fresh herbs to enjoy! Here in Philadelphia we can get a lot of things, but not quite everything. Fortunately we can get kaphao


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