New & NowWellness

Why I’m Swapping Chia for Basil Seeds (at Least Sometimes)

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I remember the first time I ever saw basil seeds. It was in the drink aisle of a gigantic Asian grocery store. I did a double-take; basil seeds? In a drink? Obviously, I had to try one.

The beverage was citrusy and filled with floating, gelatinous seeds with the texture of tapioca. It was unfamiliar to me, and at first, I thought the texture was a little slimy—but I actually enjoyed it. The seeds gave the drink a bit of chewy substance, and imparted a light, herbaceous flavor to the lemony drink.

Fair warning: you probably won’t like basil seeds if you’re not a fan of other “slimy” things: okra, tapioca, and, most similar in texture to basil seeds, chia seed puddings. But if you’re open to it, basil seeds are definitely worth a try — especially since they’re rumored to have a whole host of health benefits.

Basil seeds before and after they've encountered water.
Basil seeds before and after they've encountered water. Photo by James Ransom

WHAT EXACTLY ARE BASIL SEEDS?

The seeds are, as their name suggests, from the Thai basil plant (not the holy basil plant). They’re similar in size to chia seeds, and also become gelatinous when wet—though they still retain their crunchy interior.

Also called sabja in Indian culture the seeds have a mild floral flavor and are typically used as a thickening agent for beverages. One especially popular drink featuring basil seeds is faluda, a dessert beverage from India which is a combination of soaked basil seeds, rose syrup, vermicelli noodles, and milk. Sometimes it’s even topped off with ice cream. The drink is consumed during hot months in India, as basil seeds are believed to have cooling and soothing properties.

"I've been enjoying faluda for as long as I can remember, though I particularly associate it with Saturdays," shares Associate Editor Nikkitha Bakshani. "It was something my family and I would drink after an afternoon movie, say, or in lieu of the usual tea and biscuits at home. Basil seeds are my favorite part of faluda—yes, even more than the rose milk—because it gives the whole drink a gelatinous, en-route-to-panna-cotta texture that drives my entire family wild. Seriously; my mom is known to spontaneously break into a demand for faluda."

ARE THERE HEALTH BENEFITS?

Basil and its seeds have been used in Chinese and ayurvedic medicine practices for centuries. They’re most well-known for being a digestive aid and soothing upset stomachs.

According to the ladies of C&J Nutrition, our health knowledge gurus, some preliminary research in mice shows that there may be a connection between basil seed extract and reduced complications of type 2 diabetes (though the connection to humans remains unclear). They’re also rumored to help relieve constipation, most likely because they contain dietary fiber. Not exactly the sexiest of properties, but hey—it’s useful.

Basil leaves are high in Vitamin K, which reduces risk of blood clotting. We can hazard a guess that these benefits will extend to basil seeds as well, though it’s not 100% clear.

On the whole, very little scientific research has been done on basil seeds to date, perhaps due to the fact that they’re still a pretty niche product in the U.S. But regardless, they’re delicious and a fun ingredient to incorporate into your summer repertoire.

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WHAT CAN I DO WITH THEM?

Basil seeds are an excellent addition to lemonade iced milky tea, or any sort of fresh juice (we really want to try them with watermelon juice). Just let them soak in the liquid for at least five minutes to let them gel.

You can also pre-soak basil seeds and keep them on hand to spoon onto your morning yogurt, or add some texture and floral taste to gelato or fruity sorbet. Or turn them into a pudding a la chia seeds by soaking them in the milk of your choice (coconut milk would be especially good). Or you could also mix basil seeds into ricotta along with basil leaves for a creamy, herbaceous pasta topping or crostata spread.

If you want to try basil seeds yourself, here’s a handy preparation formula from Max Falkowitz at Serious Eats: 1 teaspoon of the seeds soaked in 8 ounces of liquid (water, lemonade, or even alcohol will do) will expand into about 3 tablespoons of gellated orbs in about five minutes.

WHERE DO I FIND THEM?

You can track down some basil seeds at larger Asian grocery stores and, of course, the internet. If you’re feeling especially thrifty, you can even harvest your own from that basil plant on your window! Pluck off its flowered stalks and let them dry, then gently break them apart with your fingertips and sift out the small black seeds.

Basil seeds can easily be mistaken for chia seeds.
Basil seeds can easily be mistaken for chia seeds. Photo by James Ransom

SO, WHAT’S THE VERDICT?

Basil seeds may not cure all your digestive woes, but if you want to switch up your chia seed game or just want to add a new drink into your summer beverage rotation, try some basil seeds on for size.

A Tasty Breakfast Option

Have you ever tried basil seeds? Tell us about it below.