What is shiso? Beloved in Asia, yet rarer in the United States, the mint family’s fast-growing shiso benefits our health and adds an interesting flavor to dishes.
Also known as perilla, beefsteak plant, or Japanese basil, shiso (Perilla frutescens) has a pleasant smell and a taste that’s hard to describe: Basil and mint? Cinnamon and coriander? No matter what you call it, the flavor complements many different dishes, from salads to pasta to vegetables. In Japan, red shiso leaves give flavor and reddish color to umeboshi, pickled ume plums used as a salty, tart condiment at meals. Because of its food-preserving ability, green shiso often accompanies the raw fish in sushi or sashimi.
What is shiso’s appeal beyond its flavor? In Chinese medicine, shiso is seen as almost a cure-all. Its leaves and seeds are used for poor blood circulation, coughs, colds and flu, nausea and food poisoning, morning sickness, asthma and other chronic respiratory ailments, and as a general health tonic. It’s also being studied for both anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties.
The seeds of shiso are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. You can dry and powder the seeds, just like the leaves, and you can stir-fry or batter-fry the whole, fresh, immature seed head. Oil is extracted from the seeds and used in cooking as well as in manufacturing (for varnish). Dried seed heads accent potpourri and dried flower arrangements.
The old masters of the martial arts claimed that shiso kept them more flexible, young-looking, and vital. Perhaps this is true, since shiso plays a part in the famous longevity diet from Okinawa. Even if none of its health claims are proven, shiso benefits our diets, as well as our gardens.
A member of the vigorous mint family, shiso establishes itself easily in the garden. It’s eye-catching, with its green or reddish-purple, ruffled leaves spread among flowers in a bed or along the back of a landscaping border. Shiso can grow up to 36 inches tall, but trim it regularly so you’ll have a shorter, bushier plant that doesn’t go to seed as quickly. Shiso makes a good companion for tomatoes in the vegetable garden, and bees and butterflies love the tiny flowers that appear on the plants in late summer and early fall.
Shiso likes well-drained, sunny areas but can grow in partial shade and heavier soils. Growing shiso is quite simple. First, several seed companies recommend storing seeds in the freezer for at least a week or two to help with germination. A few weeks before the last frost, start the plants in pots by covering the seeds lightly with soil. Set the pots outside to expose seeds to the cold temperatures they’ll need to sprout. When they’re up and growing, transplant them to the desired location in your garden, though they’ll also grow easily in containers.
When I first tried growing shiso, none of the seeds seemed to sprout, and I forgot about them until a few rogue seedlings started showing up in the garden the following year. Now plants pop up just about everywhere — we even found one growing in a crack in the sidewalk a block and a half from our house, where we often go walking as a family!
To prepare shiso for cooking, harvest the leaves in the cool part of the day. Rinse and pat dry, then wrap the stem-ends with a wet paper towel, put them in a zip-close bag, and store them in the refrigerator until ready to use. You can also preserve them by packing them in a jar and covering with vinegar, or by salting.
To salt, lay one leaf in a container, add a layer of salt, place another leaf on top, add another layer of salt, and continue. Try drying and powdering the leaves, then using them in smoothies or as a rice seasoning.
Try cooking with shiso with one of these enticing recipes:
The founder of Kitazawa Seed Company, Gijiu Kitazawa, apprenticed for a seed company in Japan before starting his business in 1917 in San Jose, California to provide seeds for customers interested in preparing traditional Japanese dishes. The company now offers 500 cultivars of Japanese heirloom vegetables. Find the following types of shiso at Kitazawa Seed, and see below to explore offerings from other seed companies.
Green Ao: This type, with its pure green leaves, can be used as a sushi wrap or sashimi garnish, in tempura, or in a salad. The seeds are also edible and flavorful.
Red: The red leaves of this type are often used for color in umeboshi or in pickling. The seeds are part of the “seven spices of Japan,” originating in Kyoto more than 300 years ago.
‘Jeok Ssam Ip’: This Vietnamese cultivar has smaller leaves than others and a stronger flavor. The plant has green leaves and red-purple undersides. Traditionally, cooks use the leaves in shrimp and fish dishes or in pickling.
Korean: Leaves of Korean shiso are green on top and light purple underneath, and they’re larger than those of other types. Young, large, raw leaves can serve as a wrap for sushi or cooked food.
Marqueta Graham lives in Missouri with her husband and seven children. She loves sharing her knowledge of herbs and wild foods on her blog Sweete Felicity.
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