Thursday, January 27, 2011

INGREDIENTS - Untangling Basil in Brazil (Manjericão and Alfavaca)

If you look in almost any English - Portuguese bilingual dictionary you'll find that the English word "basil" is translated into Portuguese as "manjericão." One multilingual dictionary translates manjericão into a number of languages such as French (basilic), English (basil), Italian (basilico) and German (basilienkraut). However, when I go to my local supermarket here in Fortaleza, or any fruit and vegetable market anywhere in Brazil, the plant that is labelled manjericão is not what I know as basil, or as basilic or as basilico.

Manjericão certainly has many of the same flavor elements that basil does, and the overall taste is quite similar. The appearance of the plant is very different, though. Instead of large, glossy, bright green leaves it has small, velvety leaves that are a somber green in color. I've come to rely on manjericão in many recipes that I use that call for basil. Even when raw basil is included, I've been able to substitute manjericão without changing the overall flavor of the dish. But my culinary curiousity always made me wonder why Brazilian "basil" didn't look like the plant I was used to.

In researching various foods for Flavors of Brazil, I've come to realize that the only wayto make certain that the English word and the Portuguese word  for something refers to the same species is to try to find the scientific name for each and see if they are the same. Doing a bit of internet-digging I discovered that I was right - dictionaries notwithstanding, basil (Ocimum basilicum) and manjericão (Ocimum gratissimum) are not identical. They do belong to the same genus, Ocimum, so they're related, which explains the similarity in taste, but they are not the same thing.

Using the scientific names as a starting point, I thought I'd see if there was a word in Portuguese that correctly translated basil, and one in English that correctly translated manjericão. It turns out that these words do exist. The plant that we know of in English in basil is known in Brazilian Portuguese as alfavaca and in Portugal they call it manjericão-de-folha-larga. I've run across the name alfavaca in Brazilian cookbooks and gastronomy magazines, but have never seen it in supermarkets or markets. I was curious as to what it was but since it wasn't available to me, I didn't bother to try to find out. Now I know. Conversely, the plant called manjericão is called African basil in English, or in Hawaii where it is naturalized, wild basil.

My guess is that these two herbs, with similar tastes, differ in choice of climatic conditions for cultivation. The basil that is familiar to English, French and Italian speakers grows best in Mediterranean climates - hot, dry summers and cooler, sometimes rainy winters. The manjericão that Brazilians prefer would seem to be a tropical variety, cultivated here, in Africa and Hawaii.

All of which is interesting from a botanical and linguistic viewpoint, but perhaps less so from a culinary one, as I see no reason why the two plants are not totally interchangeable for all culinary purposes. The only exception might be in something like an Italian salada caprese, where the bright red tomato, white mozzarella and vivid green basil mimic the colors of the Italian flag. In that case, it would be worth walking past the manjericão in the produce section and search out some true alfavaca.


  1. This is fascinating! Whenever I go to Brazil I shop at a natural garden directly (see ) and I often wondered why the differences between the basil i Plant in my American garden and what i find in Brazil! Have you tried panting the American basil in Brazil?

  2. Hi Ana - I'm afraid I don't have a garden, so I haven't planted American basil in Brazil. Maybe you'll inspire me to do so!


  3. Thank you for unraveling a mystery that has plagued me for MONTHS!

  4. VCS conhecem as plantas de treteques? O que seria chamado en Inglês??