Persian Basil (Reyhan/Reyhoon) Demystified

Whenever I have the blues I go to my favourite herb nursery. Sounds a bit crazy but the scent of the herbs, the gorgeous gift shop and a nice cup of coffee and cake at their coffee shop always alleviates my mood and makes me forget about all the craziness happening in the world for a little while. They have tons and tons of herbs and lots of flowers and old roses in pots. I never tire of experimenting with new varieties of familiar herbs and they really have a very large selection.

Thai basil is one of the most popular varieties of basil in Iran. It’s used raw in sabzi khordan and in cooking. It’s a very popular herb to eat with grilled meats (kababs).

Our basil, or rather varieties of basil as there are several, smell and taste very different from the sweet or Italian basil usually sold in supermarkets here in the UK. Our baskets (or bowls) of sabzi khordan (fresh herbs, radishes and spring onions) outside Iran don’t look quite the same without our beloved basils, especially the gorgeous purple one. I love the Italian basil and the bushy Greek basil but use them only in pasta and other non-Persian recipes.


sabzi khordan

Left: Italian (sweet) basil, Right: Tiny-leaved bushy Greek basil.
Left: Italian (sweet) basil, Right: Tiny-leaved bushy Greek basil. These are the ones found in most supermarkets in the UK.

So I got very excited when I found so many favourite varieties of basil, including the lovely African blue basil, purple basil and Thai basil. All of these are very popular varieties in Iran. Very curiously we call all of them basil, except the purple one which is called purple basil. There are other varieties too which I haven’t seen outside Iran.

African blue basil and purple basil are very popular varieties of basil in Iran.
African blue basil and purple basil are very popular varieties of basil in Iran. The tiny plant grew to quite large size in the garden and had beautiful flowers too.

Obviously once you smell something like those lovely herbs you would want to take them home with you! I bought a few pots of basil and will be growing them on a windowsill for now. When it gets a bit warmer I’ll take them out. They love sunshine. I’ll grow some from seed, too.

Basil seeds germinate a bit slowly but given a warm place and some good light they grow fast and fill the space with their lovely scent. Of the many seed varieties available online I like Anise basil, Licorice basil, Thai basil, lemon basil, purple basil and the African blue pictured above. This last one reminds me of what my Azarbaijani family and relatives called Tabrizi basil. They were very particular about their basil and grew their own from heirloom seeds handed down in the family. It had a delicate heavenly scent of anise and licorice.

If you want to sow your own sprinkle a generous pinch of the tiny seeds on rich, loose, well-drained soil in medium-sized pots. Cover with 1cm soil and then grit. Keep warm and water frequently until the seeds germinate. Thin out to five or six good shoots in each pot. Once they are about ten centimetres and have two or more sets of leaves pinch the top to make them bushy. Patience will pay off, believe me!

I use Persian basil in salads, in sabzi khordan (I’ll write about this one in another post) and as a gorgeous edible garnish but the uses for this heavenly herb are innumerable. I’ll recommend using it in drinks, too.