After the post on Pad Ka-prao went up, my inbox has seen quite a few emails asking why I ‘frown upon’ people making “Pad Ka-Prao” with different kinds of basil other than holy basil. After all, “it tastes just as great,” you say.
I agree. I also disagree. Let me explain.
First of all, I don’t think anyone is opposed to the idea of making Thai spicy basil stir-fry with any kind of basil you can find — holy or, you know, unholy. Thai sweet or purple basil (bai horapa or, formally, bai horapha) is just as much a part of Thai cuisine as holy basil (bai ka-prao or bai ka-phrao), and, therefore, the use of it will not change what some would consider the traditional or “authentic” flavor profile of Thai food in any way. So, yes, I agree; a spicy stir-fry with sweet basil is delicious.
However, I strongly disagree with the assertion that a good Pad Ka-Prao can be made without holy basil, its namesake and sine qua non ingredient. This is because Pad Ka-Prao, by definition, needs to have the flavor and fragrance of holy basil. How can a “holy basil stir-fry” that does not taste or smell of holy basil be a good holy basil stir-fry?
But it can be a great dish.
For example, what you see here is a Thai spicy stir-fry of Chinese-style crispy pork belly (หมูกรอบ, Mu Grob or Mu Krop) which I made exactly the same way I do Pad Ka-Prao (see Pad Ka-Prao recipe), except with less fish sauce and soy sauce due to the saltiness of the store-bought pork belly (or you can make it at home). I added Thai sweet basil to it, because I didn’t have any holy basil on hand at that time.
Was it delicious? Oh, heavens, yes. Was it Pad Ka-Prao? Uh, heck, no.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed it, but most of the time this is what you get at many Thai restaurants overseas — ka-prao-less Pad Ka-Prao. They know they can’t honestly call the dish Pad Ka-Prao in the absence of ka-prao, but calling it by any other name — they perhaps think — would confuse the non-Thai customers.
The solution to this is easier than searching frantically for Thai holy basil where it just isn’t available: one just needs to recognize that there is such a dish as Pad (Bai) Horapa (ผัดใบโหระพา, literally “sweet basil stir-fry”) and quit calling it “Pad Ka-Prao.” That’s all one needs to do. It’s a simple solution that would at once absolve people from the guilt of being untruthful and allow them to make a dish that tastes like what it’s supposed to.
Non-Thai diners aren’t as uninformed as previously assumed any more. Many of them know Thai cuisine better than they’re given credit for. Actually, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that many of them know more about Thai cuisine than some Thai restaurateurs do.
In this case, as I’ve said earlier, the solution is simple. But until the problem is acknowledged, the need for solution will not be felt.