Food

Seed extraordinaire: Sabja are rich in fibre, lends to a variety of recipes

Basil seeds are good food that have antimicrobial qualities

 
By Vibha Varshney
Published: Saturday 31 July 2021
photograph: Vibha varshney / cse
photograph: Vibha varshney / cse photograph: Vibha varshney / cse

Renuka Verma, who runs Poushtik Bakes in Bengaluru, has found a nutritious and cost-effective substitute for eggs for her cakes, breads and biscuits. Available online for Rs 50-100 per 100 grams, just a spoonful of her special ingredient — sabja seeds — is enough for a fluffy cake batter.

Sabja are seeds of the tulsi plant found in Indian homes and used in tea to treat runny noses and sore throats. The herb falls under the genus Ocimum that has over 150 species across the world. While most species are found in tropical rain forests of Africa, India is considered its place of origin. Leaves of Ocimum sanctum (Ram / Shwet / light and Shyam  / Krishna / dark tulsi varieties, or holy basil) are more commonly used; for seeds, Ocimum basilicum (Babui tulsi, or sweet basil) is the preferred species as it has a higher number of seeds per plant. 

The seeds have recently been popular among those looking to eat healthy. The small black seeds, also called falooda seeds, become mucilaginous (gain a gelatinous consistency) when soaked in water and are said to help reduce weight, deal with constipation and acidity and also manage diabetes.

The mucilage is rich in dietary fibre such as the polysaccharides glucomannan and xylan that make one feel satiated for a long time. A study published in the journal Bioactive Carbohydrates and Dietary Fibre in May 2021 establishes that fibre accounts for 98.50 per cent of this mucilage. 

As the hydrated seeds do not have a strong flavour or taste, they can be easily added to smoothies, fruit juices and milkshakes for a healthier kick (see recipes).

They have been used as a replacement for fats in sponge cakes by researchers from the Department of Food and Nutrition, Korea University in Seoul. In a 2017 study in the Italian Journal of Food Science, the researchers report that 1 g of seeds can replace 15 g of butter. 

Non-hydrated seeds are also edible. In a 2020 study in the journal Current Research in Nutrition and Food Science, researchers from the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics at Periyar University, Salem, Tamil Nadu, report using roasted sabja seeds in idli batter to make it healthier for diabetics. 

The seeds feature in traditional recipes, too. A nutritious pak or barfi is made by turning the seeds into a flour and mixing them with ingredients such as almond, khoya, Bengal gram flour, black pepper, crystal sugar and ghee. This sweet can be eaten every morning with milk for full nutrition.

Water-Smart crop

This rising popularity of tulsi — for its stems, leaves and seeds — has made it a profitable crop for farmers. Moreover, it does not require too much water and can be grown easily in water-stressed areas. In fact, water stress, along with both high and low temperatures, increase the yield of essential oils from the seeds.

Jagdeesh Chaudhary, an educationist and the director of Balaji Institute that runs colleges in Faridabad, Haryana, is passionate about water conservation and often uses his fields to demonstrate to farmers that they can shift to tulsi for more profits.

Based on his experience with the crop, Chaudhary said a farmer who cultivates it organically can earn at least Rs 4 lakh per year from for 0.4 hectares, compared to Rs 50,000 farmers in the area earn from conventional crops like wheat or rice.

Sabja seeds are not just used in cooking; they yield an oil which has antimicrobial qualities and inhibits the growth of yeasts and fungi on the skin. For instance, the oil inhibits the germ tube formation in the yeast Candida albicans that causes infections in humans, and prevents their growth, as per a 2018 study published in the journal Industrial Crops and Products.

In recent years, there have also been extensive studies on the mucilage to see if it could help develop materials that can be used in personal care products, cosmetics, medicines, controlled delivery devices and in agriculture.

As tulsi grows profusely, the Central Institute of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants in Lucknow has developed hybrids that give off diverse fragrances and flavours such as that of paan (betel leaf), lavender, lemon and cardamom. Many of the Ocimum species already have flavours reminiscent of other herbs. For example, Thai tulsi has an anise-like fragrance, while African basil has a strong camphor-like smell. These hybrids serve as cheap substitutes in the food industry.

RECIPES 

Lemonade

Ingredients
  • Lemon: 1
  • Sabja seeds: 1 teaspoon
  • Sugar: 1 teaspoon
  • Black salt: 1/2 teaspoon
Method
Soak the sabja in a bowl of water for at least 30 minutes. Cut the lemon and squeeze out the juice. Scrape out the pulp too. Put it in a mixer with salt, sugar and a little water. Pulse the mixer once or twice to create a frothy mix. Add the sabja seeds and add more water to fill one glass.

Kulfi

Ingredients
  • Sabja: 1 tablespoon
  • Almonds: 10
  • Pistachios: 10
  • Green cardamom: 2
  • Milk: 2 glasses
  • Milk powder: 1 tablespoon
  • Sugar: 3 tablespoon
  • Corn flour: as needed
Method
Soak the sabja seeds in a bowl of water for 30 minutes. Crush the almonds and pistachios. In a thick bottomed pan, boil the milk. Add the crushed dry fruits and sugar and boil till the mixture is thick. Add the milk powder and corn flour, ensuring that lumps are not formed. The amount of corn flour needed depends on the thickness of the milk. Cool the mixture and add half of the sabja seeds. Put the thick milk in kulfi moulds and freeze. Once frozen, take the kulfi out of the mould and cut into small pieces. Sprinkle the remaining seeds along with slivers of almond and pistachio over the top.

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