Basil is not an herb that features in traditional Indian cooking, but, as Thai cuisine shows us, its pungent-sweetness can be divine in curries. My recipe today combines the complexity of basil with vibrant Indian spices, sweet coconut milk, and a vegetable that pairs beautifully with this herb: cauliflower.
I have a bumper crop of basil this year in my backyard vegetable garden, and frankly, I am tired of making vegan pesto, delicious as that is. I have, in the past, experimented with basil in Indian curries, and I’ve loved the results. For this recipe, I needed about a cupful of basil, which added wonderful flavor without overwhelming the curry.
In India, basil is called the “queen of herbs,” which might surprise you because I just said it’s not used in Indian cooking. The Indian basil, called tulsi, is related to the Italian sweet basil we use here, but it is much more bitter, has smaller, thicker leaves, and was never really considered a cooking herb, although modern Indian cooks have started using it in recipes.
The tulsi plant is considered holy by Hindus (sadly, the mythological story behind tulsi glorifies the terrible practice of sati, or widow burning, that persists to this day in some parts of India), and in rural parts of the country, you will often find tulsi plants growing in front of homes in specially shaped planters. The plant itself is worshipped, and its leaves are used as an offering to the gods, or in countless home remedies for ailments ranging from a sore throat to diabetes.
Sweet basil shares those health benefits: it is anti-inflammatory, packed with vitamins, and good for your heart. Summer’s the perfect time to splurge on this herb that grows easily in a small piece of soil or in a pot. And, of course, it’s abundant this time of year in markets and grocery stores.
You likely already have everything you need for this curry in your pantry. If you don’t, it would be well worth the trouble of making that trip.
- 1 medium head cauliflower, trimmed and separated into florets
- 1 tbsp extra virgin coconut oil
- 1 tsp cumin seeds
- ¼ cup finely chopped coriander leaves
- 1 medium red onion, finely diced
- 3 cloves garlic, peeled
- 1½-inch piece of ginger
- 2 green chili peppers like serrano (deseed if you want lesser heat-- this curry is pretty mild with the two chilis)
- 1 tbsp garam masala
- 2 tsp coriander powder
- ½ tsp turmeric
- 1 13.5-oz can of coconut milk
- Juice of 1 lemon
- Salt to taste
- 1 cup packed basil leaves
- With a mortar and pestle, or in a food processor, make a coarse paste of the garlic, ginger and green chilis. Set aside.
- In a large saucepan, heat the coconut oil.
- Add the cumin seeds and, when they begin to darken a little, add the ginger-garlic-chili paste. Stir to mix
- Add the coriander leaves and stir.
- Add the onions and stir-fry until the onions turn translucent but don't brown, about 3-4 minutes over medium heat.
- Add the coriander powder, turmeric and garam masala and stir well to mix.
- Add the cauliflower florets and stir thoroughly
- Add 1 cup of water, cover the saucepan, and let the cauliflower cook 5-10 minutes, or until it's as tender as you want it to be. I like my cauliflower with a slight bite, but if you prefer it more tender, let it go a little longer.
- When the cauliflower is cooked, add the coconut milk and lemon juice. Stir well and let it warm through without coming to a boil. Turn off the heat.
- Tear the basil into the curry using your fingers.
- Serve hot with rice or crusty bread.
- *Hot tip: Add some cubed tofu to this recipe for a protein boost.