Thai basil might be one of the top 5 smells in the world for me. Spicier and mintier than Italian basil, with anise undertones, it is heady and intoxicating. It is crucial to the success of many red curries and takes on a starring role in a family of stir fries. In Thailand, many of these stir fries would be made with holy basil, but that is mainly unavailable here, and Thai basil fills in admirably. While it may not be as authentic as holy basil, it is delicious and worth experimenting with nonetheless.
The only problem is that it requires a lot of Thai basil, so you either have to grow it yourself or hit the mother lode. Which I did at Jungle Jim’s last week, where they are selling it like a green–i.e., in huge, fresh, regionally grown bunches. I pretty much buried my nose in it for the entire shopping trip, causing many people to look askance at me no doubt.
Previously I was most familiar with Thai bail in a chicken stir fry that absolutely scorches with lots of Thai bird chilis. As a matter of fact, in Thailand they use 2 different types of chile pepper, both hot, and like a dunce when I was there, I identified one of the chile peppers and then foolishly assumed the other, tiny, unidentified orange veggie that kind of resembled a tiny carrot, was some exotic vegetable I was not familiar with. Into my mouth I popped the whole thing.
After drinking all of the water at the table (including a large bottle) and eating all of the sugar, I raced across the road to an ice cream shop and got green tea ice cream. When I got back, beet red and sweating profusely, the maitre’d stared at me eating my ice cream and said “Oh, you have quite the sweet tooth!”
Anyway, the point being given Alex’s inability to tolerate any heat, I knew I needed something a bit different. After searching through my Thai cookbooks, I actually found more basil stir fries with beef than chicken, which I realized would stand up to the lack of chile pepper, since beef has so much flavor on its own. And this is what I came up with.
One note about the nuoc cham: I used nuoc cham because I happened to have some leftover from another night. You could just as easily garnish with minced garlic, lime juice and fish sauce–a bit of each.
1 lb beef, any tender to somewhat tender cut will do, chopped into small rectangles, about 1/4 inch thick (I used beef round)
2-3 T vegetable oil
1 medium-large red onion, thinly sliced
1 head of garlic, minced into a paste
minced or sliced hot chile peppers, to taste, optional (can also add sambal oelek to individual servings)
1 1/2 cups packed Thai basil (I used 2 lbs beef and hence wished I had had more basil–your stir fry will ideally be even more replete with basil than is shown in my pics)
2 T kecap manis (sweet soy sauce)
2 T Chinese dark soy sauce
1 T Chinese light soy sauce
2 T fish sauce
2 T sugar
1 t white vinegar
Combine the sauce ingredients. Taste them to make sure the salty and sweet is in good balance for you. Set aside.
Heat a wok or large nonstick skillet over medium high heat. Add the oil–when it is shimmering, add the garlic. Fry until it darkens and becomes quite fragrant, but do not let it burn. Turn the heat up to high and add the onions. Stir fry for 1 minute, then add the beef. Toss, stir frying, for 2 minutes, until the outside is browned (ideally you would really sear it dark but I find it difficult to get a residential pan that hot, probably because I am using nonstick). Add the sauce and stir fry for another minute. Add the basil and turn off the heat,tossing the basil evenly throughout the dish. Serve with lots of jasmine rice and nuoc cham (see comments above).