Thai Chicken with Holy Basil (pad kra pao gai)

Stir fried chicken and holy basil combine quickly into a delicious sweet and spicy dish — Thailand’s most popular street food!

A few years ago, we received a massive bunch of Thai holy basil in our Lancaster Farm Fresh CSA share.  I’ve had holy basil teas, but I wasn’t familiar with it in other contexts, so I did what any curious home cook/CSA shareholder does when faced with an unknown ingredient: Google to the rescue!  I learned all about holy basil, but most interestingly, that it’s fairly hard to find here.  A lot of what is called holy basil is really just plan thai sweet basil, which is quite common (in fact, I grow it in my vertical herb garden) — but they’re entirely different forms of basil.  Apparently it’s hard enough to find holy basil in the US that even many Thai restaurants apparently substitute in regular Thai basil instead, even though the flavor profile is quite different.

Thai Chicken with Holy Basil (pa kra pao gai): Stir fried chicken and holy basil combine quickly into a delicious sweet and spicy dish -- Thailand's most popular street food! {Bunsen Burner Bakery}

I also found an awful lot about the supposed health benefits of holy basil — everything from stress relief and treating scorpion bites to curing tuberculosis and ringworm (where was this holy basil when I had a litter of ringworm-infested foster kittens?!).  As a scientist, I take all such claims with a very, very, very large grain of salt, which is to say that I think many medicinal claims for plants in the amount we consume is vasty over-exaggerated.  That’s not to say that that compounds in the plant aren’t potent medicinal treatments — after all, penicillin comes from mold — but the amount we consume is not going to cure your tuberculosis (abandon your holy basil tea and get thee to a physician, please).

But what to do with the holy basil?  I found many recipes for teas and tinctures and step-by-step extraction instructions to make your own capsules.  Eventually, I stumbled across the phrase pad krapao — basil stir fry — and found dozens of recipes for what seems to be Thailand’s most popular street food.  I decided to make my version with gai — chicken — stir frying the chicken with the holy basil, along with oyster sauce, dark soy sauce, Thai chili peppers, and garlic.  The holy basil is peppery with an unexpected bite with aroma almost reminiscent of cloves, and lends a great spicy-sweet flavor combination to the dish.  I stuck with what is apparently the Thai street food tradition and served a fried egg on top, deliciously crisp and golden, the runny yolk serving as a rich and cooling complement to the hot Thai peppers.  Given that this entire dinner took under 20 minutes, the result was a fantastic fast weeknight option, and I can see why it’s such a popular dish.

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