Thursday, December 6, 2012

Holy Basil Tea

Browsing in the herbal tea section of my local whole food shop, I was drawn to a pale blue-green box labelled “Tulsi”.  What is it and what are its reported benefits?

Tulsi, also known as Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum, now called Ocimum tenuiflorum), is a herb native to India.  It is sacred in the Hindu religious tradition - tulsi translates as "incomparable one" - and is believed to protect against misfortune and to represent purity, harmony, serenity and luck.  If you go to India, you will see holy basil growing in profusion around Hindu temples as well as in many Hindu homes.

According to Ayurvedic tradition, holy basil is one of the best herbs to prepare the heart and mind for spiritual practices.  It is said that it performs the indispensable spiritual function of balancing and toning the energetic chakra system.  Holy basil opens the heart and the mind, bestowing the energy of love and devotion (bhakti). Sacred to Vishnu and Krishna, it strengthens faith, compassion and clarity.  Water mixed with the petals is given to the dying to raise their departing souls to heaven.

According to Hindu mythology, Tulsi is the divine consort of Lord Vishnu (the Preserver/Protector).  According to one legend, Tulsi approached Lord Vishnu’s abode as a destitute woman seeking shelter.  Lakshmi, Lord Vishnu’s chief consort did not allow her inside.  Tulsi waited patiently in the courtyard for the Lord. Humiliated at the treatment, her feet sprouted roots and her hands sprouted branches and she turned into a fragrant plant.  The Lord was very pleased with Tulsi’s devotion and granted her the status of his consort.

Holy Basil comes in red and green varieties, both with a strong, pleasant aroma. More clove-like than that of culinary basil, holy basil has been used for centuries to treat a variety of medical conditions.

A variety of biologically active compounds has been isolated from the leaves including ursolic acid, apigenin, luteolin, eugenol, cardinine, cubenol, borneol, vallinin, linolenic acid, oleic acid, orientin, circineol, vitamin A and vitamin C.  Numerous medicinal properties have been claimed for holy basil, including analgesic activity; anti-arthritic activity; anti-inflammatory activity; anti-ulcer activity; immune modulatory activity; anti-cancer activity; anti-convulsant activity; anti-diabetic activity; anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-viral activity; anti-malarial activity; anti-stress activity in addition to possessing useful memory enhancer and neuroprotective activity (1).

The different types of basils have different scents due to their different essential oils.  The strong clove scent of sweet basil is derived from eugenol.

In Ayurvedic medicine, holy basil is believed to be an adaptogen.  Adaptogenic herbs are said to improve the body's ability to resist environmental stressors.  In the 21st century, many adherents of adaptogens claim that these herbs promote the health of the adrenal glands, which in turn regulate immune response, emotions and bodily reactions to stress.

There is growing interest in scientific evidence indicating that plant-derived polyphenols such as ursolic acid influence gene expression via epigenetic mechanisms (2).  These may explain the adaptogenic effects observed by practitioners of Ayurveda.

Ursolic acid, one of the polyphenol components of holy basil, is known to be an inhibitor of enzymes called histone deacetylases (HDAC).  Histone deacetylases regulate the acetylation of a variety of histone and non-histone proteins, controlling the transcription and regulation of genes involved in cell cycle control, proliferation, survival, DNA repair and differentiation (3).  Some HDAC inhibitors are used as drugs in the treatment of cancer, reactivating dormant tumour suppressor genes, leading to programmed cell death or apoptosis (4).

In Ayurvedic medicine, holy basil is used to treat respiratory system disorders and is said to promote the removal of catarrhal matter and phlegm from the bronchial tube.  A decoction of the leaves, with honey and ginger is an effective remedy for bronchitis, asthma, influenza, cough and cold.  The active ingredient related to this use is thought to be eugenol.

Modern research on holy basil suggests that holy basil contains powerful antioxidants and it may be hepatoprotective (liver protecting).  Also, preliminary clinical studies are investigating holy basil's effect on ulcers and blood sugar levels in type 2 diabetics (5).

Holy basil has generally recognized as safe (GRAS) status in the United States.

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Monday, December 3, 2012

Amchoor Chana

My local health food shop, Earthfare in Glastonbury, has a cornucopia of herbs and spices.  Last time I was there I bought a small packet of mango powder, which is also called amchoor.

Mango powder or amchoor is made from raw green mangoes that are cut, sun-dried, and ground into a pale beige powder.  Mango powder is used much like lemon, but it gives food a tangy, sour taste without adding moisture.  Its tart flavour is used as a souring agent in soups, dals, vegetable dishes and chutneys, especially in northern India.

I had never cooked with mango powder before so I decided to experiment.  As it has a sour flavour, I wanted to balance it with something sweet.

Winter squash is currently in season and has a beautifully sweet taste when cooked slowly, so I decided to combine this with onions, tomatoes, chickpeas and some spices to create a subtle sweet and sour dish.  It was delicious.  So here is my recipe for Amchoor Chana - Chickpeas with Mango Powder.

Amchoor Chana
(serves 4)


1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pinch sea salt
2 medium onions (finely chopped)
2-4 cardamom pods, crushed
1 teaspoon ground cumin
¼ cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon mango powder (amchoor)
1 teaspoon ground coriander
½ winter squash (cut into cubes)
1 can chickpeas (drained) or 2 cups freshly cooked chickpeas
1 can chopped tomatoes
1 dessert spoon white (shiro) miso (dissolved in a little water)


1. Add olive oil, salt and onions to a cooking pot and sauté gently until the onions are soft and translucent.
2. Add the spices and stir for 1 minute
3. Add the winter squash, chickpeas and tomatoes, cover the pot and simmer gently for 30 minutes or until the vegetables are soft.  You may need to add some extra water.
4. Add the white miso.  Taste to check whether the seasoning is to your liking and adjust if necessary.
5. Serve hot with brown rice cooked in turmeric and garnish with fresh coriander.

If you like your dishes with hotter spices, you can also add a whole mild fresh chilli (finely chopped) or half of a bird’s eye chilli (seeds removed and finely chopped).

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Swede and sumac soup

Swede and sumac soup

Recently, I bought a swede at a farmer’s market and was musing about what I could make with it.

The swede is a member of the cabbage family; it is often confused with the turnip, though they look quite different. It's also known as yellow turnip, Swedish turnip and Russian turnip and, in America, rutabaga.

Swede has a round shape and a purple-green skin, and the flesh is yellowy-orange, with a sweet, earthy flavour.

I had never made soup from swede and wondered what I could add to lift and balance the earthy flavour.

Searching in my spice cupboard, I found a jar of sumac.

Sumac is a spice which comes from the berries of a wild bushy shrub that thrives in poor soils and grows wild in all Mediterranean areas and parts of the Middle East.  The highest quality sumac berries come from higher altitude areas.  Sumac is any one of approximately 250 species of flowering plants in the genus Rhus.

The fruits of the genus Rhus are ground into a deep-red or purple powder used as a spice in Middle Eastern cuisine to add a lemony taste to dishes.

So I decided to experiment by combining the sweet earthy flavour of swede with the tangy citrus flavour of sumac and the result was delicious.  Here is the recipe – enjoy!

Swede and Sumac Soup
(serves 2-3)


1 tablespoon olive oil
2 medium onions (diced)
1 small pinch salt
½ swede (cubed)
2/3 teaspoon sumac
1 dessert spoon white (shiro) miso (diluted in a little water)

  1. Put olive oil in a pan, add onions and pinch of salt.  Sauté gently on a low flame until the onions are soft and translucent
  2. Add the swede and water to cover half of the vegetables’ volume.  Simmer on a low heat for about 20 minutes or until the swede is soft.
  3. Add the sumac spice and the white miso.  Blend until smooth.  Taste and add more water and seasonings if necessary to obtain the desired consistency and flavour.
  4. Serve with a garnish of fresh chopped herbs or a sprinkling of sumac powder 

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