The Mysterious Purple Basil

Part I

For this paper, I chose to look into the history and usage of purple basil, which we found both in the bostan in the church grounds near Yedikule and also in the bostan further north at the mouth of the Black Sea. The name “purple basil,” I have found is far more colloquial than scientific. Technically, Ocimum basilicum, “Purpurascens” was first identified by British botanist, George Betham, in the 1830s (DeBaggio, 2014). In fact there are several species of purple basil, including some that grows in tiny leaves in Thailand and another found in the mountainous regions of north America. At first, I thought there were just two types, the Ruffled and Osmin Purple Basil, and I tried my best to identify which of the two our selection was. I don’t think my analysis was as detailed as it would be without live specimens, proper leaf indexes or detailed descriptions on the differences in species. Therefore, I cannot specify what type of purple basil we found here in Istanbul.

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Photo Credit: Caroline Silber, 2014

Research on the origins of purple basil also posed some challenges. The basil is made purple by the heightened presence of anthocyanin, a purple pigment. Within the genus of purple basil, there is great discrepancy over the taxonomy when it comes to the species and their origins and nature (Phippen, 2000).

In my search for both the origins and arrival of purple and regular green basil in Istanbul, I also didn’t have much luck. I decided to therefore look into the sources given in our class. In the Geoponika, dated back the10th century, I found in the 14th chapter of the 12th book a small paragraph to describe how to best fertilize basil, along with other plants (tl. Cassianus). In the three typika, detailed charters from monasteries and convents of Byzantium in the late middle ages, there was no mention of basil (green or purple) as a plant. There was the mention of a “St. Basil” in the 12th century document (tl. Bandy), and the phrase, “the divine Basil,” as a teacher of God in the 13th century typika (tl. Talbot). Although not plant related, perhaps the origins of their name, reverent in nature, are a result of the productive and fruitful essence of the plant.

The leaf part of the basil plant is the only part that is conventionally eaten. The leaves can be eaten whole or dried as a flavorful accent to other dishes. It can also be pureed into pesto, which capitalizes on the plant’s natural oils.

Although there are a variety of types of basil within the same genus, there are some wild forms of basil that typically showcase more elaborate flowers and have smaller leaves. Their categorization as “wild” may also be a product of certain strains like sweet green basil becoming a domesticated and a harvested crop because of their fuller leaves and thus higher nutritional output.

Part II

Purple basil, and its most common types, the Ruffled and Osmin, both thrive in strong sunlight and moist but drained soil (Backyard Gardener). Osmin Basil prefers more humid environments. Purple Basil is an incredibly durable plant, which often grows on the outskirts of a garden in sort of a protective manner. Its variety is shape allows it to be a versatile container plant (Mississippi State University, 2004). When were were visiting the bostan near the Black Sea, we saw purple basil growing vigorously on the outskirts beyond the borders of the intended crop. It was almost weed-like. Although the report on purple basil released from the Penn State states that there are no pests for this plant, the “Backyard Gardener” reports that the biggest problems for the Purple Basil is the whiteflies as a pest and Verticillium and Fursarium Wilt for diseases (Backyard Gardener).

Since there are so many types of basil found throughout the world, the planting specifics for purple basil have to be geo-specific. In a description of purple basil from an organization founded in Israel, which has similar climate and conditions to Turkey, (despite the biome-diversity of Istanbul itself), the methods for cultivating purple basil are as follows:

-planting time is all year

-crop time is 2-5 weeks

-ideal temperature are 16 degrees at night and 20 degrees at day

-plant size ranges from 12 to 24 inches and should be planted 12 to 18 inches

apart

(Hishtil, 2014)

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Photo Credit: Caroline Silber, 2014

Part III

When I first saw what purple basil was, since I had never seen it before, I was immediately intrigued by its color. Yes, purple is my favorite, beyond favorite, color. I have had basil before; I grew up cultivating it in my family’s small vegetable garden in Massachusetts, but I have never seen it in purple. Being basically the same plant, I expected it to taste the same as what I knew my green sweet basil back home tastes like. I personally don’t really like basil to begin with unless its mashed up into pesto, so I was even more opposed to the more bitter, almost licorice-like taste of the purple basil. It had a more grainy texture than what I’m used to and, as I said, the taste was a bit less of my liking. My favorite part of the whole experience that took place on the third floor of Woods Hall, was the smell. The fresh smell of basil, or what I could fish out of the other vegetable aromas filling up the room, reminded me of the green basil back home. I was back in my kitchen in the late summer afternoon preparing dinner with my family.

Traditionally I have only known basil to be good for pesto and caprese salad. In my research I found that purple basil is complementary with Thai food as well as some Mexican dishes. As for Turkish cuisines, I found an interesting one from a blog called “Turkish Style Cooking.” I’m not sure how legitimate the page is, but we’ll go with it because it’s a fitting title. Plus it’s such an intriguing idea I have to share it.

One Turkish recipe involving purple basil is a purple basil sherbet, or sweet drink.  It’s looks simple and delicious! (Turkish Style Cooking).

Ingredients:

  • 1 bunch of purple basil,
  • 1 cup sugar,
  • Juice of 1 lemon,
  • 3 lt boiling water.

Preparation:

  1. Wash, drain and dry purple basil,
  2. Transfer into a deep pan or glass cookware and add water,
  3. Set aside to cool to room temperature, lid open,
  4. Take the purple basils out of the water and throw away,
  5. Add lemon juice adn şugar,
  6. Stir until the sugar melts,
  7. Strain with a piece of cloth and chill.

 

___

From the primary research we did for this blog post, it is clear to me that there is so much more to learn about the biodiversity that surrounds us, growing in the soil of potted plants on the back window sill or in full gardens directly in the middle of a bustling city.

 

_______________________________________


Sources:

 

Backyard Gardener. “Ocimum basilicum: Purple Delight Sweet Basil.” (http://www.backyardgardener.com/plantname/pd_ada7.html).

Cassianus, Bassus, Geoponika: Farm Work: A Modern Translation of the Roman and Byzantine Farming Handbook. Totnes, Devon: Prospect Books, 2011, 9-55 and  246- 267. (https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/5111268/Harvard%20summer%20school%20readings/Second%20Week/Dalby%20A.%2C%20Geoponika.pdf).

DeBaggio, Thomas. “Growing Purple Basil,”  Mother Earth Living. May 2014. (http://www.motherearthliving.com/gardening/purple-basils.aspx#ixzz39RzeXumW).

Histil. “Ocimum basilicum purpurascens.” 2014. (http://www.hishtil.com/htmls/page_916.aspx?c0=18157&bsp=18222).

Mississippi State University: Office of Agriculture Communications. “Awards selection committee chooses Purple Ruffles basil.” April, 2004. (http://msucares.com/news/print/sgnews/sg04/sg040415.html).

Phippen, WB. “Anthocyanin inheritance and instability in purple basil (Ocimum basilicum L.).”Center for New Crops and Plant Products, Purdue University. June 2000. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10912675)

Turkish Style Cooking. “Purple Basil Sherbet Recipe.” July 2014. (http://www.hishtil.com/htmls/page_916.aspx?c0=18157&bsp=18222).

Typikon of Athanasios Philanthropenos for the Monastery of St. Mamas in Constantinople (trans. Anastasius Bandy) (http://www.doaks.org/resources/publications/doaks-online-publications/byzantine-monastic-foundation-documents/typ043.pdf).

Typikon of Theodora Palaiologina for the Convent of Lips in Constantinople (trans. Alice-Mary Talbot) (http://www.doaks.org/resources/publications/doaks-online-publications/byzantine-monastic-foundation-documents/typ051.pdf)

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The Tomato: History, Cultivation, Appreciation

Part I:

The tomato (domates), while often associated with Italy and its cuisine, actually originated in the Andean region of South America. The exact date and location of the tomato’s domestication is unclear, but scientists believe it was probably first domesticated in what is now Peru and later brought to Mexico.[1] Spread of the tomato beyond Central and South America began in the 1500s with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores, who learned about the plant during their colonization of the continent. They introduced tomatoes to their various colonies in the Caribbean and brought them back home to Spain and to the rest of Europe, where they grew particularly well in southern Mediterranean climates like Italy, Greece, and Turkey. However, because the conquistadores could only bring home a limited number of seeds and plants, they created what geneticists call a “bottleneck or serious reduction in population” that resulted in lower genetic diversity, meaning the domesticated tomatoes growing in Europe were likely to have damaged genes, making them “slower-growing and frailer than their wild kin.” Scientific advances have allowed plant breeders and genetic biologists to work on crossbreeding domesticated tomatoes with wild ones that have a thick, waxy skin that would allow the plant to retain water better.[2]

However, tomatoes were not always known for the sumptuousness with which we associate them today. While we know that the Aztecs were eating tomatoes by 700AD, in many parts of Europe – particularly countries in northern Europe, such as Britain – tomatoes were considered highly dangerous, and were therefore grown mostly for aesthetic purposes; consumption was avoided. While it is true that only the red fruit is edible and that all other parts of the plant are toxic, the tomato’s bad reputation extends beyond its legitimately poisonous vines. Many wealthier Europeans feared tomatoes because when a tomato (a highly acidic food) was eaten off a plate made of pewter (high in lead content), a chemical reaction occured and the lead would leach from the plate onto the fruit, causing lead poisoning. The true problem – pewter, or more generally, chemistry – was not recognized until many years later, at which point the tomato was exonerated.[3] Finally, the tomato’s scientific name – Solanum lycopersicum – itself promoted fear: “solanum” relating to the deadly nightshade plant which the tomato closely resembles, and “lycopersicum” meaning “wolf peach”.[4]

Yedikule domates

Yedikule domates

Part II:

Tomatoes grow well in South America, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East because the climate is perfectly suited to the plant’s needs. Tomatoes require copious direct sunlight and warm weather; their seeds germinate in temperatures of 68-80 degrees Fahrenheit, and consistent temperature between 65-75F is ideal for plant growth. Anything cooler slows down growth time, and any hotter calls for more frequent watering.[5] A tomato plant needs a moist (but not sodden) environment, so it is important to water it whenever the soil dries one to two inches.[6] Tomatoes like well-drained soil with fairly neutral 5.5 to 6.8pH, but loam – a soil composed of sand, silt, and clay – is frequently cited as the best because it drains easily and heats up quickly.[7]

Before planting tomatoes, one must “harden them off” – meaning, get them used to the outdoors and the night’s cold by placing them in the shade during the day and covering them at night for about a week. Seedlings are ready to be planted outside when they are approximately six inches tall, and they should be planted 18-36 inches apart from each other. While chemical fertilizer can be used, some gardening manuals recommend using kelp meal and bone meal as natural fertilizers. Some “old-time” gardeners will even toss in a tablespoon of Epson salt (for magnesium) when transplanting. Additionally, some people will “solarize” their soil by covering the plot with plastic to maximize the sun and heat before transplanting – solarizing also helps prevent disease, such as verticillium wilt.[8]

Fruit appears about 60 days after transplantation, and will start out small and green before ripening to a deep red. The plant can be protected from pests by putting a clear plastic bag around the fruit, leaving a slight opening for airflow. The damage done by insects, however, is “generally minimal compared to the damage done by spreading diseases by the insects.” Therefore, the best way to prevent disease is to reduce the number of insects by removing the weeds around the tomato plants, where insects tend to breed.[9]

Geoponika, a 10th century Byzantine farming manual, was compiled before tomatoes were brought to the region in the 16th century, and thus contains no references to tomatoes, which were not a food of the classical world. However, Book V discusses various farming techniques regarding vines, some of which relates to the tomato.[10] For instance, Book V 22 discusses the importance of pruning and the use of a “vine-prop” not unlike a tomato stake,[11] which not only provides the tomato physical support but also helps prevent disease.[12]

Plastic fruit protection

Plastic fruit protection

Part III:

It would be a challenge to grow up in the United States and be somehow unfamiliar with tomatoes or tomato-based products. The tomato is a quintessential ingredient in most salads, and is commonly sliced onto sandwiches and burgers. Ketchup – a tomato-based condiment – is slathered upon all manner of fast food, while “spaghetti with tomato sauce” is a staple of every restaurant’s children’s menu. Tomatoes comprise the bulk of dips and salsas, and tomato juice can be drunk plain or with vodka as a “Bloody Mary.” Tomatoes even have (so it is thought) miracle restorative properties: most people have consumed Campbell’s Tomato Soup at least once when ill.

There are many varieties of tomato. A sun-ripened summer tomato, the size of a tennis ball or larger, is a deep, earthy red. Its skin is taut but its shape is irregular. This tomato has a powerful, inviting musk – redolent of the soil from which it emerged. It is plump to the point of exploding; slicing it reveals the meat, seeds, and juices packed within. Its taste is tangy and sweet. The flesh is the sweetest, while the juices provide an acidic counterpoint, creating a tension that pleasures all the taste buds. So easily is this tomato sliced that one wonders whether it was invented for that very purpose. Plopping a section in one’s mouth initiates a chain of pleasurable sensations, as subtly varied flavors vie for attention on the tongue. Tomatoes require little in the way of chewing and thus can be consumed too quickly, the joy over all too soon. Not surprisingly, an array of accompaniments and preparations has evolved to delay gratification and enhance the enjoyment. For example, tomatoes may be diced and served over rustic bread lightly toasted or grilled, the result being the tomato’s juices fill the bread’s crevices and crannies and create a whole the taste of which is greater than the sum of its parts. A tomato also makes an excellent accompaniment to a cheese such as mozzarella, often served in slices interspersed tomoato/cheese/basil and drizzled with olive oil.

Although tomatoes only entered Turkish cooking about 100 years ago, it has become an invaluable element of Turkish cuisine.[13] Tomatoes or tomato pastes are used in many dishes, including lahmacun, acili ezme, and fasulye pilaki – tomatoes are even featured in breakfast dishes such as menemen.

Domates Dolmasi Recipe:[14]

Domates Dolmasi

Domates Dolmasi

Ingredients:

  • 4 large tomatoes
  • 1 medium size onion, chopped
  • 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 200 gr medium ground beef
  • 2tbsp pilaf, boiled
  • 2 tbsp parsley, chopped
  • 2 tbsp dill, chopped
  • 4 tbsp crushed tomato, in a can
  • 1 tbsp red pepper paste
  • ½ + 1 cup beef stock
  • 1 tsp salt
  • ½ tsp pepper

Instructions:

Cut off the tops of the tomatoes and scrape out the insides. Prepare the filling by sautéing the onion with the butter and add the beef until light brown. Add the crushed tomatoes, pepper paste, and beef stock and cook for 15 minutes. Add the rice and herbs.

Fill the tomatoes with the filling and cook for 40 minutes. Serve with yogurt and garlic.

[1] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2759208/

[2] http://news.discovery.com/earth/plants/tomatoes-genetic-journey-from-wild-to-salad-13062.htm

[3] http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/why-the-tomato-was-feared-in-europe-for-more-than-200-years-863735/?no-ist

[4] http://www.planetnatural.com/tomato-gardening-guru/history/

[5] http://homeguides.sfgate.com/conditions-tomatoes-need-grow-66550.html

[6] http://homeguides.sfgate.com/conditions-tomatoes-need-grow-66550.html

[7] http://www.ladybug.uconn.edu/factsheets/tp_05_gtomato.html

[8] http://www.planetnatural.com/tomato-gardening-guru/planting-tomatoes/

[9] http://www.tomatofest.com/tomato-diseases-pests.html

[10]Cassianus, Bassus. Geoponika: Farm Work: A Modern Translation of the Roman and Byzantine Farming Handbook. 2011, 123-148.

[11] Ibid, 135.

[12] http://awaytogarden.com/how-to-grow-tomatoes-good-tomato-hygiene/

[13] http://www.turkish-cuisine.org/english/pages.php?ParentID=6&PagingIndex=2

[14] http://www.turkishcookbook.com/2007/04/tomato-dolma.php

Purslane Over the Years: Small in Size, Big in Importance

The wonderful purslane, semizotu in Turkish, is a part of the Portulacaceae family, which contains around “15 genera and 500 species of herbs or small shrubs” found mostly on the Pacific Coast of North America and southern South America (Brittanica, “Portulacaceae”). According to one article, purslane probably originated in Western North America or South Africa (Prairieland Community Supported Agriculture). According to a Cornell University article, the origin of purslane is very unclear (Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences). I am not sure how exactly purslane came to Istanbul but it is possible it came directly from Africa or from Greece as it was popular there. (Ibid) It has been found in many archaeobotanical searches in Greece at prehistoric sites so dates way back (The Plant Encyclopedia). Purslane’s ability to produce up to 52,300 seeds in a single plant which “can survive for up to 30 years in undisturbed soil” make it quite popular and may have factored into its quick spread throughout the world (Ibid). Purslane has been found all over the world and according to the Plant Encyclopedia, it was in Crawford Lake deposits in 1430-89 AD, revealing again its spread (The Plant Encyclopedia). While only the leaves are eaten for the most part, the stem can also be eaten. The modern crop in bostans in Istanbul (portulacaceae oleracea scientifically), a potherb grown throughout Europe, contains the green stem and leafs, which are fairly low to the ground (Brittanica, “purslane”). Its wild form is considered to be a weed and contains “small yellow flowers” (Ibid).

 

In terms of requirements for growth, purslane is special in that its known for its longevity as it can grow in “dry waste soil and can retain enough moisture to bloom and ripen seeds long after they have been uprooted” (Brittanica, “purslane). Thus, purslane thrives in many different environments and conditions. However, the best conditions for growth according to the Plant Encyclopedia, are in “rich, mid-fertility” soil, “medium, well-drained moisture” and a water pH of 7 (The Plant Encyclopedia). It serves culinary purposes today but has also functioned medicinally throughout time in many societies. In the Geoponika, the Byzantine farming manual, purslane is mentioned throughout as helping in the growth and preservation of fruits such as grapes (IV.15) and pomegranates (X.35) (Geoponika 122, 214). Interestingly today, it still functions to support the growth of other vegetables. It states in the Plant Encyclopedia, “Purslane provides ground cover to create a humid microclimate for nearby plants, stabilizing ground moisture. Its deep roots bring up moisture and nutrients that those plants can use” (The Plant Encyclopedia).

 

My first interaction with purslane was at the bostan in Yedikule right next to the church. While taking a number of measurements at different corners throughout the bostan with the hot sun beating down on me, I saw some people I was with reach down to taste a little green leaf. I did the same and once I started, I could not stop. I later learned that little, soft green leaf was purslane (semizotu) and it had the biggest presence in this particular bostan compared to everything else growing in the bostan, presumably revealing its popularity in the area. As I tore off a piece and tasted it, it was if I suddenly became a little kid in a candy store tasting the most delicious piece of candy. It was both refreshing and salty and a bit crunchy. It wasn’t too flavorful but enough so that I could not resist grabbing more (and then buying some right before departing). I loved it for its simple, easy to miss flavor yet its freshness at the same time. In the Geoponika, the refreshing, hydrating quality of purslane is revealed when it says, “The leaf, placed under the tongue, makes one less thirsty” (Geoponika XII.40, 266). This was my first time tasting purslane but since trying it, I have seen it everywhere, often accompanied by a yogurt sauce, which is a very typical Turkish dish called Yoğurtlu Semizotu (below is a recipe for this dish from About.com). I am not a fan of this dish as I think the yogurt drowns the purslane and the person consuming the dish cannot truly taste the green. This could be more a personal preference as I like very simple dishes with minimal sauce. In class a couple weeks ago, we ate purslane with a bit of olive oil and some spices and I thought that was absolutely delicious. I found a “green lentil and purslane salad” in “Time Out Istanbul” which sounds appealing since it is quite simple (Time Out Istanbul). Purslane is a delicious green whose small size contradicts its great presence and functions throughout time.

Following recipe from About.com:

Ingredients:

  • 2 to 3 large bunches of purslane (enough to yield 4 cups of leaves)
  • 3 cups plain Turkishstrained yogurt or Greek yogurt
  • 2 large garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste

Preparation:

First cut off any roots from the purslane. I always wash and drain it twice to make sure there is no soil or grit left on the leaves.

Separate the leaves from the stems. You can save the stems for use in other recipes if you wish. Spin the leaves in a salad spinner to remove any extra moisture.

In a separate bowl, whip together the other ingredients using a wire wisk until smooth and creamy. Adjust the amount of salt and pepper to your taste.

Add the purslane leaves and mix together well. Make sure all the leaves are covered with the yogurt mixture.

You can serve it immediately, or cover and chill it for several hours or overnight. The flavor actually gets better if the salad rests for a while. Gently stir it again before serving.

2014-07-22 17.00.18

Purslane. Photograph Taken by Rosenthal. August 2014.

Purslane. Photographs taken by Rosenthal. July 2014.

Bundle of Purslane. Photograph taken by Rosenthal. July 2014.

 

Works Cited

About.com. “Purslane With Strained Yogurt And Garlic Is Called ‘Yoğurtlu Semizotu.’” Accessed 3 August 2014. <http://turkishfood.about.com/od/MezeStarters/r/Purslane-With-Strained-Yogurt-And-Garlic.htm>.

Cassianus, Bassus. Geoponika: Farm Work: A Modern Translation of the Roman and Byzantine Farming Handbook. 2011. Totnes, Devon: Prospect Books, 9-55 and 246-267.

Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “Portulaca oleracea.” Web. Accessed 3 August 2014. <http://www.ansci.cornell.edu/plants/medicinal/portula.html>.

Encyclopaedia Britannica Academic Edition. “Portulacaceae.” Web. 3 August 2014. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/471686/Portulacaceae>.

Encyclopaedia Britannica Academic Edition. “purslane.” Web. 3 August 2014. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/484198/purslane>.

Prairieland Community Supported Agriculture. “Produce Recipes: Purslane.” Web. Accessed 3 August 2014. <http://www.prairielandcsa.org/recipes/purslane.html>.

The Plant Encyclopedia. “Portulaca oleracea.” Web. Accessed 3 August 2014. <http://www.theplantencyclopedia.org/wiki/Purslane>.

Time Out Istanbul in English. “Istanbul’s top 20 salads.” Accessed 3 August 2014. <http://www.timeoutistanbul.com/en/fooddrink/article/2423/Istanbuls-top-20-salads>.

Yedikule Found in Other Studies

Today in my reading for another class, Yedikule was mentioned. 

“For the new site of the hospital, influential Armenians first suggested Kinaliada, an island known for its clean air; yet this proposal was rejected due to concerns about transportation. At a meeting that took place at Bezciyan’s house on January 5, 1832, and agreement was reached on building the hospital on the Leblebicioglu farm between Yedikule and Kazlicesme. Yedikule was chosen because of its clean air and suburban location: At a time when epidemics took high tolls, it was uncommon to build hospitals in the city center where population was more dense. It should also be noted that the suggested farmland was owned by Ohannes Amira, the son of Garabed Arzumanyan, an important member of the Armenian Apostolic community who led the efforts to build a new hospital at the time.” (“2012 Declaration: The Seized Properties of Armenian Foundations in Istanbul,” Polatel, Mildanoglu, Lemaneren, Atilgan)

Important to note here is the date of the description and reasoning for picking Yedikule as the location of a new hospital. In the first half of the 19th century, the air was clean and the region was considered “suburban.” Clearly, by the looks of the region today, urban growth has expanded beyond the gardens located at Yedikule and this description doesn’t seem to match up. I also found interesting the demographic of Yedikule. In the reading by Kaldjian he speaks of the different groups of people that migrated in and rotated through the Yedikule gardens as farmers and tenants. Perhaps the existence of the Armenian Apostolic community in the area was a result of an Armenian majority of farmers on the Yedikule gardens at this time. 

Just something small but interesting I stumbled across! Feel free to share your own thoughts and ideas!