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Words of the Day: Basil (Jiu Ceng Ta)

Posted: Sunday, October 9, 2011 By Ni Hao Books

The Words of the Day for today is 九层塔, jiǔ céng tǎ (basil). 九层塔 literally means nine level pagoda.

I did not learn to cook when I lived in China, so I don't know how to say a lot of cooking related things in Chinese. One of these things that I have troubles with is herbs. Whenever I bring a non-Chinese dish to a potluck with Chinese friends, if the dish is good, people ask me what's in the dish. I usually have problems telling them the herbs I put in, especially the herb basil.

To improve my own Chinese, I looked up the word basil in an online dictionary, and found that it is 九层塔 (jiǔ céng tǎ). Why is it named nine-level pagoda. One story goes that a Chinese emperor was out sightseeing and a sudden flood forced him to be trapped in a nine-level pagoda for a few days. He found this plant growing on the roofs of the pagoda. It not only tasted quite good but literally saved his life. When the flood receded, upon safely returning to the palace, he named this plant 九层塔.

I love these kinds of stories because they are so Chinese. While reading about 九层塔, I found a very famous Chinese dish using basil. 三杯鸡, sān bēi jī (three-cups chicken). Chicken is stewed in oil, soy sauce and cooking wine, with basil added in the end. This dish originated from 江苏 province, and has become popular in Taiwan. I can't wait to cook up this dish and watch the family eat it up.

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