Ingredients: Shiso, the uniquely asian herb
Shiso, aka perilla frutescens, is part of the mint family that grows abundantly during the summer. The green variety is pungeant, with citrusy, floral and mint aromas that complement asian flavors very well. Shiso leaves are high in beta-carotene and equivalents which are great antioxidants, and vitamin K for bone health.*
Growing up, we used to call shiso our “million dollar crop” because it grew abundantly in our backyard while being sold in neatly stacked packs of ten leaves at our asian grocer for a handsome sum. Today, it’s not unusual to find micro-shiso garnishing dishes at your favorite Michelin restaurant.
This year, I grew shiso courtesy of the former Whiting Nursery. Many nurseries – in California anyway – carry either the plant or seeds. You can also order seeds through Kitazawa Seed Co. which has specialized in Japanese vegetables since 1917. Sow seeds in spring but if you can find the shiso plants now through October, put them in the ground and let them re-seed naturally.
Shiso leaves can be julienned over sweet-vinegary dishes like chirashi-sushi – a kind of deconstructed sushi – or inserted whole in sushi handrolls. They can be pickled with salt and used as a rice condiment or flash-fried like basil and served as a garnish to fish. If you tempura fry them, coat the leaves on just one side.
Another simple and flavorful way of serving shiso is to add it fresh and julienned to just-cooked rice. My aunt used to do this and I have had it served this way at fancy Japanese restaurants in NYC. After the rice is cooked and just before serving, fold in the shiso with the rice and season with fine salt. Adding a bit of lightly toasted sesame seeds would be another take on this.
Having an abundance of shiso this summer, I became desperate to use them in quantity and created some fast, easy and healthy dishes that are full of umami flavor. The recipes include distinctly asian pestos, asian style pasta persillade with shrimp, even a mango granita.
*Per 100 grams raw leaves according to the “Standard Tables of Food Composition in Japan” published by the Resources Council of the Science and Technology Agency of Japan.