You may have seen a green, ruffled edge, slightly fuzzy leaf on your plate of sashimi beneath a piece of fish. Or perhaps this same leaf, only red this time, sliced into razor thin strips, sitting atop a bowl of cold soba. This herb is called shiso. Occasionally referred to as perilla or beefsteak plant in English, shiso is a relative of the mint plant and as such, bears some similarities. The leaves have a similar shape and texture, though shiso’s are much larger in comparison to mint’s. The flavor, however, is much different. The flavor of shiso is often described as somewhat like basil, with a sense of refreshment similar to cilantro, though without the side-effect of tasting like soap to some. There are two commonly used types that are, surprisingly enough, not interchangeable in terms of taste. Red shiso is considered to be slightly spicier, while green shiso is thought to taste more refreshing. Regardless of the type, shiso pairs well with other flavors found in the Japanese culinary palate, particularly soy sauce and wasabi.
Exactly what role shiso is going to play in your dish is dependent first, on the color. As stated earlier, the exact flavor of shiso leaves varies between the red and green varieties. Red, the more pungent of the two, is excellent as topping for rice, as part of salads, or sprinkled on a bowl of cold soba noodles. Red shiso, when dried, makes for a delicious furikake. The bold red color means that red shiso is commonly used as a natural dye for other foods. For example, the pink color of ume-boshi pickles is actually from red shiso leaves and not intrinsic to the plums themselves. Green shiso has a milder taste, and as such is more often eaten on its own. It shows up most commonly as a garnish for sashimi plates, or tempura battered and fried. In a slightly less orthodox fashion, green shiso works well as a topping for basically any type of meat. Try it on chicken, fish, pork, or even in place of cilantro on tacos!
With its unique aromatics and distinct flavor, shiso has earned itself another spot in the world of food and drink, namely as a new face in the world of cocktails. In its simplest form, as a simple herb garnish, shiso has the power to completely alter (and refresh) the flavor of a martini. Pair it with vodka, sugar, and lemon juice for a shiso sour, or, if you’re feeling ambitious, sub out the mint for a “shisojito”! As a plant with a refreshing taste, the potential of shiso within mixology is nearly endless.
One of the best parts about shiso is that it is exceedingly easy to grow. It thrives in full to partial sun during the summer in planting zones 1-11. The Philadelphia area is right at the northernmost reach of zone 7-- well within the range of tolerance for shiso. Ideally, seeds should be planted indoors, in bright light, about 5 weeks before the last frost. Once the last frost is past, saplings can be moved outdoors. Space shiso plants 10-12 inches from one another, and give them plenty of space from other types of herbs, as the growth of their roots can impede the growth of other plants. Shiso can be watered about once per day, as the plants grow best in soil that is slightly moist. Particularly hot days, you may need to water it twice, and if it rains, watering may not be needed at all.
Once the plant is established, shiso grows fairly quickly. Four to six plants will provide more than enough shiso for an entire household. If allowed to flower and seed, shiso will absolutely reseed itself, basically anywhere in the vicinity of where it is kept. Don’t be surprised if, the following summer, you find volunteer shiso popping up in the cracks in your sidewalk, randomly on your lawn, or in any stray pots left out from the previous season. It is so good at reseeding itself that if you don’t want it to grow back in the same spot of the garden next year, you will need to take the time to thoroughly turn over the soil after your harvest.
Here at Maido, we have both shiso seeds, and (starting in the month of April) shiso saplings to help with your growing endeavors. Seeds and saplings are available in both red and green varieties. With just a little bit of care, you can have fresh-picked shiso all summer long.