There’s a new specialty food on the block in Beijing, and it goes by the name of 兰香子 (lánxiāngzǐ). You can find it in health food stores, agricultural exhibits, and even in your dessert. It claims a host of health benefits, from weight loss, to intestinal detox, to blood sugar management. But is this really a new superfood or just advertising hype? Read on to learn about the mysterious 兰香子 and why it’s fun to put in mixed drinks.
When I first ran across 兰香子 in Dongzhimen’s Raffles City basement, I happily thought I had discovered a Chinese source of chia seeds, one of my favorite foods at home. 兰香子 shares the same curious characteristic as chia seeds of expanding rapidly when in soaked water to form a clear, squishy outer layer, making them easy to confuse. Upon closer inspection of the seeds at the recent Agricultural Products Fair in Beijing though, I realized that these two are very similar but different plants. This sparked several hours of tedious botanical searches online (yes, I am a nerd).
I finally concluded that this was likely a type of Tulsi seed* (also called Thai Holy Basil, official name Ocimum tenuiflorum) widely used in Aryuvedic medicine. The guy selling them at the Agricultural Exhibition Center said they were imported from India.
*For the detailed account of my online adventures in botanical classification and why I think this is actually Ocimum tenuiflorum, (Holy Basil Tulsi) seeds, see the end of this post.
There’s no information available online that directly breaks down the nutritional content of 兰香子seeds. However, they do appear to have a decent amount of the omega-3 fatty acid ALA.
There have been observational studies from traditional medical practices and some medical studies that suggest a host of health benefits from Holy Basil Tulsi leaf extracts. One randomized controlled trial in India showed benefits for blood-sugar control in Type 2 Diabetes, and another study in China suggested a similar effect. However, we don’t know if the health effects of the leaves also apply to the seeds.
There are no direct studies on the effects of holy basil tulsi seed supplements in people with the exception of constipation. Basil seeds (these are not the same as Tulsi Holy Basil seeds but very similar) may be helpful for constipation. There are limited studies suggesting that the fiber in the mucilaginous layer surrounding the seeds after soaking would act as a sponge in the intestinal track, sucking up water and clearing things out. 1 2
One interesting study also found found that h. suaveolens, another seed similar to Tulsi Holy basil, can absorb arsenic from water. The authors suggested that the seeds may have applications in helping detoxify people who had ingested arsenic.
There are many more unsubstatiated claims online. Web articles have claimed that Tulsi Holy Basil seeds will purify your intestinal track, cure skin problems or infections, detoxify the body, enhance weight loss, reduce blood pressure, lower blood sugar, lower cholesterol, and improve metabolism. However, there are no scientific claims to back these up.
How to Use it :
Even if we don’t know exactly what they do for nutrition, I’ve had endless fun making drinks out of 兰香子. After you add water they puff up almost like magic, forming a gooey outer layer with a similar consistency to tapioca pearls. In South East Asian Cuisine this is often used to create sweetened beverages like this Thai one:
I came up with my own special recipe for Basil Seed cocktails:
For one serving
1 tsp basil seeds (or chia seeds if available)
1/2 can soda water
a dash of orange juice or other sweetener
1/4 shot gin (or however much you want, I just use it for taste)
squeeze one lemon or lime into drink, then throw the wedge in for a garnish
Within two minutes, the basil seeds will have absorbed the water and the drink is ready to go!
When I’m not making creative drinks for friend at parties, I keep some plain soaked basil seeds at home as well. I usually add 1 cup of water per small spoonful of seeds, put a big batch of them in the fridge, and spoon small bits out over the week to make drinks. While I prefer chia seeds for eating, basil seeds are a nice substitute.
*What is 兰香子?
There seems to be a bit of confusion of the source of these seeds. While online 兰香子 is classified as Ocimum bascilcum (basil), the pictures at the agricultural exhibition center show pictures of what looks like Tulsi plants in the background Tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum), and claim the product comes from India, where Tulsi is widely used in traditional medicine.
The entry for 兰香子 on Baidu’s Encyclopedia also states confusingly that:
“The plant’s original name was Ocimum basilcum, called Tulsi in India, the Compendium of Materia Medica identifies it as sweet basil (Ocimum bascilcum).”
The confusion may stem from the fact that one type of Tulsi, called Thai Holy basil, is also used in Thai cuisine alongside the Ocimum bascilcum type of basil.
In a third possibility, it’s also possible that the 兰香子 are hyptis suaveolens, whose common name is also Tulsi.
Photo source: Wikispecies.
Interestingly, hyptis suaveolens, known as tulsi in India, is also called “chia grande” in Mexico. (pg 181, World Spice Plants). However, this is not to be confused with the salva hispanica type of chia that’s been so popular in the U.S.
If 兰香子 are like chia seeds, could they also be used to make chia pets? I hope so…..
It’s unclear whether these seeds are just basil seeds (Ocimum bascilcum), the Thai Holy Basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum) associated with Tulsi, or the hyptis suaveolens type of Tulsi. All of these kinds of seeds are from the family Lamiacae 属唇形花科 and genus Ocimum 罗勒属, can absorb water to form an outer mucilaginous layer, and have purported health benefits.
- Kocharatana P, et al. Clinical trial of maeng-lak seeds used as a bulk laxative. Maharaj Nakornratchasima Hosp Med Bull, 1985, 9, 120-136 ↩
- Muangman V, Siripraiwan S, Ratanaolarn K, et al. A clinical trial of Ocimum canum Sims seeds as a bulk laxative in elderly post-operative patients. Ramathibodi Med J, 1985, 8, 154-8 ↩