Why we should all be eating basil seeds – and how to prepare them

Also known as the Indian chia, sabja or tukmaria, these seeds are a good source of minerals and fibre

Basil seed pudding: Also known as sabja and tukmaria, and often referred to as the Indian chia, these little black seeds come from the sweet Thai basil plant, and in order to be rendered edible must first be immersed in liquid.. Photo: Scott Price

Step aside chia, there’s a new seed in town. Or perhaps we should say new to mainstream attention: after all, basil seeds have been prized for their cleansing properties in both Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine for hundreds of years, and are well known in South East Asia, where they’re often used as a thickening agent in drinks.

Also known as sabja and tukmaria, and often referred to as the Indian chia, these little black seeds come from the sweet Thai basil plant, and in order to be rendered edible must first be immersed in liquid. After being soaked in water for five minutes or so, they undergo something of a transformation, swelling in size to form gelatinous orb-like balls with a crunchy exterior. Their flavor, meanwhile, is subtle, with a vaguely floral, slightly sweet undertone.

The textural divide

It’s worth saying this from the get-go: if the texture of slippery, notably slimy ingredients and dishes – think okra, tapioca, panna cotta and the like – make you baulk, then this probably isn’t a culinary trend you’ll be keen to embrace. On the other hand, if chia seed puddings, bubble tea and wobbly blancmange are your foodie bag, read on because basil seeds might just be your new favourite ingredient.

Basil seed drinks. Photo: Scott Price

Health benefits (and a word of caution)

For such a tiny ingredient, the purported health benefits of these little seeds are numerous, yet in the absence of mass-scale research, much of the current information is anecdotal and should be adopted with a certain degree of caution.

Whether basil seeds do in fact reduce stress levels, improve skin conditions, prevent the onset of diabetes, guard against degenerative heart disease and aid weight loss remains to be scientifically seen. However, what we do know is that these seeds are a good source of minerals, containing iron, calcium and magnesium, and contain high levels of fibre, which is often lacking in our diets.

They’re also low in calories meaning you can stir a tablespoon or two into a drink or dish to add bulk and body (thus potentially keeping you fuller for longer), without vastly altering the calorie count.

For the love of falooda

Falooda is probably the best known of all the basil-seed beverages and traditionally also features vermicelli noodles, rose syrup and milk.

Rose Falooda (Photo by Aarti Jhurani) NOTE: For treat yo-self story

That said, there are myriad versions, from the classic to the extravagant – we’re talking ice cream garnishes, brightly coloured syrups, fruit, nuts and flavourings galore. If you’re after a falooda fix, there are plenty of places to savour the dessert in the UAE, but when you ask those in the know Haji Ali Juice Centre (which has various locations across the country) comes recommend time and time again.

Try the trend at home

Buy a packet of basil seeds (they can be purchased from a number of specialist Asian groceries and also ordered online for about Dh20 a packet) and there’s plenty of scope for culinary experimentation.

First, mix up your mornings by adding a few seeds to a smoothie or juice: leave them to do their expansion thing for a few minutes and you’ll have a whole new drink, with a chewy texture all of its own.

Alternatively, stir the seeds through yogurt and layer with granola to make a parfait, or scatter into a pan of porridge just before serving for a really creamy finish – just remember to add extra milk or water as the seeds will soak up plenty of liquid.

You could easily try a take on a chia-style pudding, subbing the chia seeds for basil seeds and leaving them to soak overnight in regular, coconut or nut milk to make a thick, rich treat that feels like a dessert, but can be justifiably eaten for breakfast.

Basil seed pudding. Photo: Scott Price

For something savoury, combine the seeds with ricotta cheese, grated Parmesan, lemon zest and fresh basil leaves. Spread over toasted ciabatta or fold through warm pasta, garnishing with extra shredded basil.

Finally, should you fancy doing a little kitchen experimentation, basil-seed jam is something of a revelation, and requires far less time and sugar than the conventional variety.  To make your own, put 250 grams of your chosen fruit (berries work particularly well) in a pan with a squeeze of lemon juice and a drizzle of honey, and set over a medium heat. Simmer for five to 10 minutes until the fruit starts to break down, mashing with the back of a spoon to help the process along. Stir in the basil seeds, reduce the heat slightly and cook for five minutes more, until thickened. Remove from the heat and leave to cool completely before transferring to an airtight jar and storing in the fridge.

Basil seed jam. Photo: Scott Price