The mighty, minty herb
Big in Japan and growing internationally, this not-so-little leaf is everything a plant should be—and more.
In Toyohashi, Aichi Prefecture, there is a particular herb that grows wild and plentiful each summer. These days it’s most often green, but it has a his- tory of boasting red and purple shades as well. Packaged on Styrofoam trays lining supermarkets throughout Japan and commonly spotted adorn- ing the sashimi platters of restaurants, shiso is a much-loved Japanese ingredient that packs an impressive punch of flavour and culinary versatility.
A member of the mint family, shiso originated in China and was introduced to Japan in the eighth or ninth century. Its Japanese name is taken from its Chinese name, “zisu,” but this leafy green has answered to more than one name over the years: wild sesame, Chinese basil and—curiously— beefsteak plant, among others. When shiso production in Japan spiked in the second half of the twentieth century, the increasingly popular herb became known as ooba (big leaf) and earned itself a permanent spot in kitchens across the country.
Selecting one type of shiso over another requires consideration as to its intended use. Aojiso (green shiso) presents as large leaves with jagged edges and tastes citrusy and slightly spicy, with hints of cinnamon and lavender. It commonly serves as a complement to sashimi and sushi or as a decorative receptacle for tsuma (garnishes), but can be finely diced and added to soups, salads and just about any noodle dish, hot or cold. Akajiso (red or purple shiso) has a subtler, almost lemony flavour and is used primarily to give colour to umeboshi (pickled plum) and the Kyoto specialty shibazuke (pickled cucumber).
Vibrant colours and flavours aside, shiso is remarkably easy to cultivate and boasts plenty of health benefits to boot. It grows best in warm climates, its seeds planted in moist soil with partial to full sun exposure. With only a moderate amount of attention and watering, shiso plants can grow up to three feet tall—and as a perennial plant it will self-seed again the following year. Whether from garden or grocery store, shiso is said to promote blood circulation, protect the nervous system and fight morning sickness. Green shiso is rich in calcium and iron while red shiso contains anthocyanins, the same flavonoids found in blackberries and cranberries, which are known for their antibacterial, anti-inflammatory properties.
If you haven’t tried shiso yet, keep an eye out and you’ll be sure to spot it in several different cuisines. In addition to Japanese dishes, shiso and its sister herbs in the mint family can often be found adding a welcome boost of flavour to Korean barbecue and Vietnamese summer rolls. And it’s easy to get creative in the kitchen with shiso. Infuse the leaves in water for a refreshing summer drink, or add a sprig to a mojito in place of the usual mint. Mix it into a fruit salad or try your hand at making a shiso jelly dessert: mince and boil the leaves along with gelatin, honey, lemon juice and sugar, then chill for consistency. Get your greens any way you can!