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Holy basil vs Thai basil.

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What’s the difference between Thai basil vs holy basil? 

Although Thai and holy basil belong to the same family, each has unique features. Learn the difference between Thai basil and holy basil, their uses, and their benefits. So you can decide when to use them or which one to grow at home.

While I love to use both when cooking, it is helpful to understand the differences, as they have distinct flavors and aromas that can affect the overall taste of your dish.

How wide basil varieties do we have?

Holy basil and Thai basil are both from the genus Ocimum, family Lamiaceae, also known as the mint family. Ocimum means in greek “to smell,” which refers to over 40 fragrant varieties of basil with different flavors, aromas, and colors. The most common species of basil is sweet basil, also called Italian sweet basil, Italian basil, or Genovese basil. You can find it in Italian dishes like pesto, Caprese salad or tomato sauce. Other different types of basil are lemon basil or lime basil.

In this tutorial, however, we will only explore holy basil and Thai basil, each from different species of Ocimum.

thai basil leaf
Thai basil leaf by Forest & Kim Starr, CC BY 3.0 US, via Wikimedia Commons

What is Thai basil?

Thai basil (Ocimum basilicum var. thyrsiflora), native to Southeast Asia, is sometimes called anise basil or licorice basil, with regards to its anise- and licorice-like scent and taste. 

Thai basil is commonly used in Thai cuisine and pairs well with spicy, sour, and salty dishes, making it a popular ingredient in Thai curries, stir-fries, and soups. It also adds a fresh and vibrant aroma to the dish, making it an excellent garnish. 

thai basil
Thai Basil via Forest & Kim Starr, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

What is holy basil?

Holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum), known as Tulsi or Tulasi in India, is a fragrant perennial plant used in Ayurvedic medicine for centuries. It is native to the Indian subcontinent but is grown widely as a cultivated plant in the Southeast Asian tropics. Its name, holy basil, refers to a sacred herb in Hindu ceremonial practices. Holy basil is easily confused with Thai basil, sometimes called holy Thai basil.

The plant is primarily cultivated for religious and traditional medicine purposes, and its essential oil I love to brew its dried leaves into herbal tea. But its fresh leaves make also popular addition to stir-fried dishes or soups.

7 differences: holy basil vs Thai basil

1. Appearance.

Thai basil leaves are shiny green and narrow with pointed ends, and holy basil has green stems and leaves with a more rounded shape.

Like other plants in the mint family, both basils have a square stem with opposite leaves. Green Holy basil has green leaves with a slightly hairy texture. Thai basil has distinctive purple stems; its leaves are also brighter and emerald.

Thai basil has a bushy growth habit and can grow up to 45-60 cm in height, and holy basil plant can grow up to 30-60 cm in height and has a branching growth habit.

leaf of holy basil
Hairy texture of Holy basil leaf by Bedant Gupta 01, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

2. Varieties of Holy Basil and Thai Basil: Flavor profile.

The most significant differences between holy basil and Thai basil are related to their flavors.

Thai basil brings a spicy kick to any dish. It has a sweet and fragrant flavor with a hint of anise or licorice. It also has notes of cinnamon and cloves, giving it a warm and spicy taste. The sweetness in Thai basil makes it a popular ingredient in Thai cuisines like curries, stir-fries, and soups.

On the other hand, holy basil has a peppery and spicy flavor with a slightly bitter aftertaste. In addition, its flavor profile has notes of cloves, mint, and pepper. Because of its strong and distinctive flavor, it is used in smaller quantities in cooking stir-fried dishes or spicy beef noodle soups.

holy basil
holy basil by Chinmayee Mishra, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

3. Scent.

Both species of basil have different scents, which can affect their uses in cooking and other applications.

Thai basil has a sweet and fragrant aroma with hints of anise or licorice. Its aroma is milder and more pleasant than the pungent aroma of other basil varieties. The sweet scent of Thai basil makes it a popular ingredient in Thai cuisine in dishes like curries, stir-fries, and soups. Or in teas, desserts, and cocktails.

On the other hand, holy basil has a more intense and spicy aroma with hints of clove and pepper. 

Because of its strong aroma Holy basil is also effective in repelling insects like mosquitoes and flies. In traditional Indian Ayurvedic medicine, holy basil has been used as a natural insect repellent.

comparison chart thai basil vs holy basil

4. Climate.

Thai basil, a tropical plant native to Southeast Asia, prefers hotter temperatures and full sun exposure. In contrast, Holy basil grows outdoors as a small perennial plant in slightly cooler climates like India. It can tolerate some shade but also need plenty of sunlight to grow properly.

Tulsi, holy basil
Holy basil flower By Shashidhara halady, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

5. Easy to Grow: Thai Basil or Holy Basil?

You can grow these two basil varieties indoors if you provide them with the right conditions.

Holy basil and thai basil thrive in warm temperatures outdoors, either in the hot summer months or all year in subtropical or tropical climates.

When moved indoors, holy basil can withstand shade but thrives best in partial to full sunlight. For optimal growth, ensure that your holy basil plant receives at least four hours of sunlight daily.

If you want to grow your own Thai basil, it needs at least six to eight hours of sunlight each day and well-drained soil. If you don’t live in the place with sufficient sun exposure, Thai basil should get a supplemental light source. 

You can grow basil at home using seeds or propagating cuttings from an existing plant.

6. Medicinal properties: How do Thai basil and holy basil differ?

Holy basil vs basil thai medicinal properties slightly differ as holy basil brings numerous holistic health benefits.

While both are known for their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, tulsi is often used in Ayurvedic medicine to help reduce inflammation.

Pillow spray with holy basil essential oil

In addition, Holy basil is an adaptogen, which can help the body adapt to stress and promote well-being.  Holy basil is also known to have antidepressant and antianxiety properties similar to antidepressant drugs. 

7. When to Use Thai basil and when holy basil?

Thai basil is better suited to cooking and used as a flavoring herb in savory dishes. On the other hand, holy basil is used more for its medicinal properties. 

You can find Thai basil plants in Thai dishes such as stir-fries, curries, soups or Thai basil pesto. It pairs well with dishes that have bold and spicy flavors. Thai basil holds up better when cooked and retains its flavor without getting wilted or floppy. This makes it an excellent choice for soups, where it can slowly release its flavors. This Pad Krapow Gai (Thai Basil Chicken) is comforting dish made with Thai basil.

Thai basil chicken with Thai basil

Holy basil is a sacred plant in Hindu culture and is highly valued for its medicinal properties. Dry leaves are used in teas, tinctures, and herbal remedies such as pillow spray. It is also used in Ayurvedic medicine to promote relaxation, reduce stress, and support respiratory health.

If you use holy basil in cooking add the fresh leaves right at the end as long cooking times can strip of its flavor and texture. You can find it in recipe recipes such as Tom Yum soup or green curry or stir-fried noodles. 

Thai Basil Pesto with peanuts
Thai basil pesto

Can You Substitute Holy Basil for Thai Basil?

While you might be able to find Thai basil at a well-stocked supermarket, Holy basil is hard to find outside of Asia. Thus many restaurants substitute it with the more readily available Thai basil. You can use holy basil in place of Thai basil as well. However, you may need to adjust the amount to balance its stronger peppery flavor. However, sweet basil can work as a substitute in a pinch, and it is a more widely available herb in most grocery stores.

how to differentiate holy basil and thai basil
Vladka Merva on March 24th, 2023

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