Saturday, July 11, 2009

Akajiso: Red Shiso

Red shiso, Perilla frutescens, is a relative newcomer to my herb garden, though I can’t recall where I got my first little plant of it.

It’s pretty amazing—it’s in the mint family, but has a much more subtle flavor than most in the genus Mentha. This red variety looks a lot like a coleus. Some people liken it to basil, mint, fennel, cinnamon, anise, licorice.

Sue and I both think that our plants taste something like rose.

My favorite thing to do with them is slice them into thin ribbons, or chiffonade them, and then mix it into a fruit salad. Our shiso seems to go especially well with citrus fruits, or anything you might sprinkle a little rose water on.

Another thing to do is add the leaves among the other leaves in a green salad. The deep purple is a standout, and the flavor and texture add interest, too.

Of course, one entire reason for having an herb garden is so that you always have a nice source of lovely garnishes for whatever kind of plate you’re serving. A sprig or two of shiso adds a lot of nice color to a relish tray or cheese platter.

And the culture? Easy. In fact, these are somewhat weedy. Once the photoperiod starts decreasing, the plants begin to bloom and make tons of seeds. At this point, we have shiso coming up in our lawn next to the herb garden.

It’s no biggie, but it’s probably a good idea to think about how you might want to contain the plants so they don’t get out of hand next spring when all the seeds germinate. I suggest growing them in a clump somewhere where they can “have at it.” Treat it like mint, even though it doesn’t spread by runners, but by seeds.

If you can get your hands on some of this, I recommend trying it. I really appreciate my bunch, and I love the idea of a lovely plant that you can eat besides.
And I’m only just beginning to experiment with it; the Japanese and other Asian cultures have been cooking with it for ages, so I can take some real hints from them. For instance, the red variety, like I have, is used as a coloring agent for umeboshi (pickled plums) as well as for pickled ginger (which is why those ribbons of ginger are pink when it comes with your sushi). Or so I understand.

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