One of my absolute favorite “standard issue” Thai dishes, found in just about any Thai restaurant in Bangkok from the humblest sidewalk shack to 5-star hotel restaurants with riverside views, is spicy stir-fried fill-in-the-blank-with-your-preferred-protein with holy basil (“pad kaprao”). Usually served in individual portions over rice as a complete 1-dish meal, rather than part of an ensemble meal, it is also a local favorite. While I took to it immediately, in the beginning it confounded me,due to the unique flavor of its key ingredient, holy basil.
For a long time, as much as I enjoyed the intensely flavorful and spicy features of this dish, I couldn’t help but wonder if something was off about it. There was, I noticed, a distinct after-taste to this dish – slightly antiseptic. I kept thinking that someone was washing one of its few ingredients with a product, and I was catching some of the flavor of that cleaning solvent.
After awhile, I finally figured out that what I was tasting was in fact the 100% natural flavor of holy basil. It was probably more or less pronounced depending on the amount that was added in whatever particular version I was enjoying at the time. What I have learned lately is that it is the holy basil that is so key to this dish precisely because nothing else tastes quite like it.
And that medicinal flavor makes sense, as holy basil has been used as medicine for a few thousand years in India, hence the “holy.”
In Thailand the 2 most common types of basil, both of which can be found in any outdoor market, are Thai basil with its long slender leaves and citrusy affect, and holy basil, which has a shaggier leaf, overall weedier appearance and distinctively different taste from other basil leaves.
Holy basil, or “Tulsi,” was named in India, where it really was viewed with religious reverence. There, it has been used for centuries in Ayurvedic medicine. It is considered a stress reliever and anti-bacterial. Today it is considered among phytotherapists (specialists who work with plants to help heal the body) as one of 16 adaptogenic herbs. Adaptogens are beneficial to our adrenal glands, and generally help to balance and restore the body from stressors. Some herbalists would have you drink holy basil, or Tulsi, tea daily to keep your calm. Dr Jay Axe, on his blog, discusses recent studies indicating that holy basil has acne, cancer and diabetes correcting properties.
I appreciate that the above may not be the best way to sell you on this dish, or on making it yourself, but really, if you enjoy spicy food this one is a no-brainer. It’s possible you have tried the dish already on a trip to Thailand; it’s as common as burgers and burritos in the US. It is quick and easy to make and always satisfying – easily a weeknight meal. And while it is generally served on the spicy side, the heat can certainly be dialed down (or eliminated) to accommodate individual tastes. It cooks up in about 3 minutes once your mises are in place, so if you’re cooking for 4 but only 2 like it hot, it takes almost no additional time to customize it with less chili.
My recipe is adapted somewhat from Chef McDang’s version in The Principles of Thai Cookery. I am lazy but love my veggies, so I tend to stick them into otherwise one-dish meat-centric Thai dishes like this one; such adaptations suit my way of eating better without using more pans. Also, I generally avoid vegetable oil in favor of coconut oil which works great in stir-fries. Coconut oil’s flavor is complimentary to most Thai dishes, plus the high burn temperature is an advantage when stir-frying.
After 13 year living in Thailand, this is comfort food for both me and and the remaining teenager in residence. Go forth, and enjoy my version or your own of this oh so common and oh so wonderful Thai classic!
So, you can swap out the pork for the same amount of ground chicken, beef, or a handful of shrimp or tofu. At a Thai vegan restaurant recently I even have had it with mushrooms as a focal point. Really, any protein will work in this dish. I only advise that you work with organic and grass-fed wherever possible. The difference is noticeable.
- 10 Thai bird's eye chili peppers
- 8 cloves garlic
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 4 tbsp coconut oil
- 1 lb ground pork (or other protein)
- 1 1/2 cups small broccoli florets (3/4 inch) or chopped green beans or quartered brussel sprouts
- 3 tbsp fish sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon coconut, palm or granulated sugar
- 1 cup holy basil leaves whole
With a mortar and pestle, make a paste of the chili peppers, garlic and salt.
Heat oil in wok over medium high heat. Add the paste and quickly stir-fry - do not let the paste burn - 30 seconds or so. Add the pork and broccoli turn heat up to high and stir-fry until the pork is cooked through, approximately 1-2 minutes. Add fish sauce and palm sugar, and distribute evenly in wok.
Turn off heat. Mix in the holy basil leaves.
Serve over white jasmine rice (or cauliflower rice) with an fried egg in your favorite style on top.