Sweet beverage drinkers can be divided into two camps: those like bubble tea and those who don't. Fans relish a sweet slurp mixed with mildly flavored chewy orbs; detractors regard the innocent pearls as nuclear caviar that should never cross human lips. If you're in the second camp, maybe we can still be friends, but I've got nothing for you this week.
If, on the other hand, you like your beverages on the chewy side, basil seed is just for you. When immersed in water, basil seeds form a spherical jelly coating, a kind of natural tapioca pearl. Bite down and the sphere pops, releasing a mild floral flavor napped with basil and the slight savoriness of charnushka. The interior seed cracks with a light crunch, a final textural reward. Basil seeds are a singularly strange textural and flavor experience, and if this description sounds at all appealing to you, they're worth seeking out.
Basil seeds are most common in Southeast Asian and Indian beverages. In Thailand the drink is called nam manglak, usually scented with rose water and honey. India has a version as well called falooda, an adaptation of a Persian dessert from the Moghul emperors, containing anything from scented syrup and milk to thin noodles and melted ice cream. All of which is to say that basil seeds are mild in flavor, more texture than taste, and rife for experimentation.
My investigations yielded some strong flavor pairings: ginger added sweet bite; rose complimented basil's musk; honey brought heady richness. Coconut, pandan, lychee, and other tropical flavors worked nicely. But fruit drinks of all kinds are begging for some basil seed, such as fresh-squeezed lemonade or, when they're ripe, watermelon juice (watermelon and basil get along swimmingly). Iced teas of all sorts work well, either minimally sweetened or the sugar-mad kinds found in bubble tea. But really, basil seeds are about having fun, so don't sweat the small stuff and play around however you like.
There are some guidelines worth sticking to. I like just a bit of basil seed in my drinks, but some bottled versions are more solid than liquid. I start with one teaspoon of basil seed per eight ounces of liquid. Once gelled, which happens in about five minutes, that teaspoon will expand to three tablespoons. If you're making a more opaque/viscous drink, you may want to soak the seeds separately before swirling them into your finished drink. This ensures they fully hydrate.
Also, whatever your drink, keep it cold. Add crushed ice if need be, and have all ingredients chilled. The fresh pop of the seeds is more pronounced this way, and as these are all about light summer refreshment, cold is of the essence.
I'm sure there are cocktail applications here (cucumbery gin sounds promising), but I'm happy to stick to my bubbly mocktails, which allows for more freedom in choosing fruity ingredients. Whichever way you go, pick up your basil seed now. Summer (and its myriad beverages) will be here before you know it. In the meantime, there's iced tea and lemonade just begging for 'em. Time's a wastin'.
Where to Find Basil Seed
Basil seed may not be the easiest to find, but a few ounces will last you plenty of beverages. Well-stocked Indian, Thai, or Middle Eastern groceries often carry them, but you can also get them from the internet. You could also get basil seed from a gardening supply store or farmers' market, but be sure to ask if the seeds are safe to eat raw. (Ignore the odd looks; intrepid spice hunters musn't be afraid of such things.) Basil seeds are so mild in flavor that individual variety shouldn't make much difference, but your mileage may vary.
About the author: Max Falkowitz is a proud native of Queens, New York. He'll do just about anything for a good cup of tea and enjoys long walks down the aisles of Chinese groceries. You can follow his ramblings on Twitter.