The Extracomunitari: Ligurian Pesto and Pizza Margherita

Travels With the Basil Worshipers

Selfie in an autorickshaw
Jaipur, India. Selfie in the rear view mirror of Mr. Lala's autorickshaw.

As Italian icons go, they don't get much more sacred than Pesto Genovese and Pizza Margherita. These foods are so very revered that there's a World Championship of Pesto ("Pronti, al Pesto, Via!") and the famous Neapolitan pizza is legally protected with an STG designation (Traditional Specialties Guaranteed) enforced by the ominous-sounding Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana. Now perhaps you can understand the courage needed for us to announce: Basil Is Not Italian.

It gets worse, it's not from neighboring Greece or even France, it's from India. The Romans would have nothing to do with basil because they thought it evil. In the Middle Ages, it was only used medicinally. Basil doesn't appear in the kitchen until the 1800's, and pesto is a real new-comer with the first written mention only in 1863.

Unsurprisingly, we learned this on a recent trip to India. A food trip devoted to eating wonderful Indian food of every type, except basil, all day, every day.  Italians may be comforted by knowing, however, that Indians don't eat basil so much as they worship it or use it as medicine. How wide is the world!

Hindu deities
Hindu deities in their many forms.    The 120 foot high Gopuram of Kapaleeshwarar Temple (7th Century)     Chennai
Hindus consider basil (tulsi/tulasi) an important part of the worship of Vishnu, and his Avatars. It is considered to be one of the Avatars of the Goddess Lakshmi, and most Hindus will say a prayer to that Avatar, Tulsi Devi, every morning and evening. Many will have a tulsi plant in front of their house.

Holy Basil - Tulsi
Holy Basil ( Tulsi)
As one Hindi site ( - naturally) explains: "One of Krishna’s most intimate servants comes in a special form to bless us with extraordinary fortune. Devotees of Krishna worship a little tree. But she’s not an ordinary tree. She’s Tulasi Devi, Krishna’s favorite plant. Tulasi has delicate purple and green leaves, flower tassels like miniature temple spires, and an arresting, sweet fragrance famous for attracting the minds of yogis to Krishna’s service. Tulasi’s wood is carved into the japa beads on which devotees chant Krishna’s name. Devotees wear strands of Tulasi beads around their necks. Her leaves and flowers decorate the Deity of Krishna in the temple and are placed on food offered to Him. She has taken the form of a tree so that everyone, even the poorest person, can offer something wonderful to Krishna." Maybe now you'll think twice before you mash those basil leaves with your pestle!

Amber Palace basil sign
Amber Palace basil info sign.
If you're a suspicious type, we need to assure you that this belief was not made up in response to the invention of pesto - it goes way back. There's a special basil room in the Amber Fort (palace) in Jaipur from before 1600. The many Royal wives would offer water to the basil plant as part of their bathing ritual, and sing hymns to it after sunset.

Just to be totally forthright (or nerdy), the Hindus worship the variety of Ocimum tenuiflorum (Holy Basil) called Rama Tulsi and they use a variety called Shyama Tulsi for medicinal use. Cooking basil is Ocimum basilicum or sweet basil.

Grandmother and child at Amber Palace
The timeless look. Amber Fort, Jaipur.

Have a look at our Selects Slide Show of 75 India pictures. We had great fun photographing as Indians are invariably relaxed, lively, and personable - although getting candid photos of Indians is nearly impossible since they are so alert. When we'd ask to take a photo we were never once turned down, and never asked for money.

In case you're interested, our tour was with Julie Sahni, a wonderful cookbook author, teacher, and tour guide. See her website: Julie  In rough terms, Julie knows absolutely everything about Indian cooking and Indian ingredients and shares her knowledge generously. She operates two Indian tours in most years.

Our tour focused on spices and Southern India, and now we can never buy cheap spices again. More accessibly, look for Julie's books, such as her landmark Classic Indian Cooking (click for info).

Written by Martha