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Persian Basil (Reyhan/Reyhoon) Demystified

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.

reyhan-persian-basil
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. I love the Italian basil and the bushy Greek basil and often add them to pastas and salads but I really longed for our own types of basil the first couple of years after I moved to the UK. I searched supermarkets and ethnic groceries but it was nowhere to be found.

Persian basil is usually eaten raw with food, especially kababs but is also sometimes added to food in fresh or dried form. I use fresh Persian basil in salads, in sabzi khordan (fresh herbs, radishes and spring onions, I’ll write about this one in another post) and as a gorgeous edible garnish. Those of us who live outside Iran always miss the abundance of fresh herbs available there and say sabzi khordan is never as good as back home without our beloved basils, especially the gorgeous purple one. Many of us try to grow it but finding a variety that tastes similar to our basils is often hard.

 

sabzi khordan
A bowl of sabzi khordan with different varieties of mint, tarragon and dill from my garden.

 

Left: Italian (sweet) basil, Right: Tiny-leaved bushy Greek basil.
Left: Italian (sweet) basil (right), tiny-leaved bushy Greek basil (left) are both easy to grow in pots. 

 

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 at the garden centre. All of these are very popular varieties in Iran. We call all of them reyhoon or reyhan, except the purple one which is called reyhoon-e banafsh or reyhoon-e ghermez. There are other unnamed 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 these different basils and will be growing them on a windowsill for now. When it gets a bit warmer I’ll take them out. I’ll try growing some from seed, too but can’t get my hopes very high. Summer is so short here and the sun often disappears for days.

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 but has thicker leaves. They were very particular about their basil and grew their own from heirloom seeds handed down in the family. The delicate scent of African with notes of anise and licorice reminds me of my grandmother’s garden where she grew her own basil every year.

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. If it’s warm enough outside plant them in a sunny spot in the garden and harvest often. The more you pick from the top, the more they will grow.