I know I just complained to you in a recent post on Thai spicy basil stir-fry about the scarcity of holy basil (Bai Ka-prao ใบกะเพรา) outside Asia (which has led to all the faux Pad Ka-Praos on the menus of several Thai restaurants in Europe and North America). But may I please have your permission to whine a little more?
It’s so hard to find lemon basil. And nothing can be used in its place. Nothing.
To make matters worse, lemon basil has ridiculously short shelf life. By the time, you discover that some fresh lemon basil has made a rare appearance at your favorite Asian store, it’s already half dead.
So it’s unfortunate that lemon basil (Bai Maeng-lak ใบแมงลัก) happens to be an indispensable garnish/accompanying herb for rice noodles with curried coconut-fish sauce (Khanom Jin Nam-ya ขนมจีนน้ำยา) and an ingredient in spicy mixed vegetable soup (Kaeng Liang แกงเลียง). And while holy basil and sweet basil can be interchangeably used in some cases (it is not ideal, but it doesn’t precipitate the end of the world either) no other kinds of basil can be used in lieu of the unique, citrusy lemon basil. The two aforementioned dishes, for example, become sad and depressing — the latter especially — in the absence of this herb.
Fortunately, just as you can grow your own cilantro in order to harvest the roots, you can also grow your own lemon basil. Lemon basil can be grown from seed easily, grows fast, and is low-maintenance; the seeds can also be found easily in the US. It can also be grown indoors provided that you give it enough sunlight daily.
The easiest way to plant lemon basil that I know of is to fill a wide pot (with drainage holes) with top soil about 3/4 of the way. Then scatter the seeds on the surface of the soil (leaving about 4-5 inches between them) and moisten the soil lightly. The seeds should sprout in 7-10 days.
With some sunlight and adequate water, your lemon basil should be ready for harvest around 30 days after the seeds have sprouted. The plants should produce new leaves for you to harvest every week thereafter. Some fertilizer once a month should be adequate (highly recommended especially if you grow lemon basil indoors).