Skip to content

The king of fragrances

In India, basil or tulasi as it is referred to in the local language, invokes a definite image of sanctity that is often incorporated into the architectural design of traditional houses where it might be grown in a separate pedestal in the center of a courtyard as a symbol of worship. This is one species of basil appropriately referred to as o.sanctum or holy basil that has also had medicinal uses since ancient times.


 One day at work, many years ago, a friend gave me a plastic bag full of recently picked basil along with a small white card that had instructions on how to make a sauce out of it. That of course was Italian basil, a species that enjoys protected designation of origin status when grown in Genoa. Pesto in Italian literally means “I pound”, a unique way of celebrating how a sauce is prepared, that to me, especially in the summer, has continued to be a revelation as to what basil can do. Below is a method to prepare pesto:


Basil leaves

Pine nuts (or pignoli as they are referred to in Italian): Using around 1/4 cup of sautéed nuts to 2 packed cups of basil is a good starting proportion.

Hard cheese, preferably Parmigiano reggiano (freshly grated)

Garlic (small piece)

Olive oil (good quality whose flavor is not too strong)

Coarse sea salt



To a mortar, add some coarse sea salt, garlic, and pine nuts and pound the mixture using a pestle into a paste. Add basil leaves in small quantities and pound to form a dry green mixture. Adjust the proportion of ingredients to taste. When the desired amount of pounding has been done – and this seems to proceed effortlessly while having a conversation, and a drink – add a gentle stream of olive oil while continuing to pound and grind until a thick creamy consistency is reached. Add enough cheese and mix to get a richer, more solid consistency. Pesto thus formed is best used immediately, if not it oxidises and loses flavor pretty easily, even when stored in the refrigerator. However, freezing it in ice-cube trays like my friend suggested, and then storing the cubes in an air tight freezer box extends the shelf life to an extent. Making pesto using a food processor or blender can be delicious, but the flavor extraction (pounding and grinding versus cutting/chopping and blending), and the ability to regulate texture are variables in comparison to using the mortar and pestle. Is the extra time and effort worth it? Maybe some of the time?



There are many types of fragrant herbs used in the kitchen, and each of them has a distinct botanical name. However, from the standpoint of taxonomy, I cannot think of any herb besides basil where the name of the genus, ocimum, is a testament to the fragrance of the plant whether it is viewed religiously (ocimum sanctum) or royally (ocimum basilicum - where basilicum derives from Greek to mean king1). Neither can I think of a sauce besides pesto that conceives of incorporating the flavor and fragrance of a herb into a simple emulsion of nut-oils and olive oil, in the process, opening up many other possible variations of this concept.


1. Basil. An herb society of America guide.





12 thoughts on “The king of fragrances

    1. Bala

      Thank you very much!

      Are there other combinations of herbs and nuts/oils that you have tried in the style of pesto?

  1. Sudha

    Beautifully said. I want to leave my lap top and pull out the mortar and pestle!
    Pesto trumps them all especially when you consider the aroma and the anticipation as it is being prepared.
    But I can think back to my childhood and "chutney" sandwiches. Using the traditional south indian “ami kal” or grindstone, grind a fresh bunch of coriander leaves with a few pods of garlic, a couple of green chilies, a generous chunk of coconut and sea salt to form the “chutney”. Spread over bread slices slathered in butter (preferably salted Amul butter) and it makes for another masterpiece for colonial gastronomy!

    1. Bala

      Thank you!

      I agree, the element of anticipation and aroma adds so much to the moment.

      And yes, I was reminded a lot of ammi kal chutneys when writing this post especially as I was trying to think if there were any chutneys that were herb/nut/oil based like pesto.

      As for the coriander chutney sandwich with salted Amul butter*, it has "summer picnic and conversation" written all over it!

      *Amul butter for the benefit of some readers is a locally produced brand of butter in India.

  2. nirmala

    Very well photographed. Has a personal touch.
    What came immediately to my mind is fresh coriander chutney. Finely chopped coriander two cups full,quarter cup of groundnuts, 2 green chillies,salt ground to a fine paste in grindstone with a dash of lemon juice. Sesame oil is used for seasoning with little mustard.seeds. Brings back memories of mouth watering 'bread omelette'. Two slices of bread with a spread of butter,followed by coriander chutney with an egg omelette sandwiched between the bread slices and grilled is awesome!

    1. Bala

      Thank you!

      Yes, I've heard you mention this chutney before. While I've not tried the coriander chutney sandwich with the egg omelet, it sounds delicious - thank you for sharing the recipe. Using oil for seasoning versus using it to create a creamy emulsion with the nut oils as in pesto, I think is a difference, though.

  3. marybrighton

    Hi Bala! I loved this article and shared it with my blog's Facebook page. Great information on using a mortar rather than a food processor, good for us to know. In Genoa (I have a friend there) mortars are used to make pesto...and that is good enough to say we must do it this way 🙂 (if we have time, bien sur!) Merci Bala.

    1. Bala

      Hi Mary!
      Thank you very much for your kind comments and for sharing the post with your blog community.
      I dream of visiting Genoa someday!

  4. KK

    Nice write up!!.. Being an South Indian, I have problems in equating italian basil with indian tulsi even though they are of the ocimum.. The aroma and the taste are way off. Growing up in rural India, I came across a medicinal herb ( often used in garlands ) called thiruneetru patchai. I donno its botanical name. This was never used in indian cooking just like tulsi. But I feel that the taste and aroma is very close to italian basil.

    1. Bala

      Thank you! Your mention of the herb, thiruneetru patchai that might be similar in flavor to Italian basil is very interesting. I will try to find it - thank you!


I look forward to reading your thoughts...

%d bloggers like this: