The Shiso leaf, also known by its genus name perilla crispa (or just perilla), is a member of the mint family made common by Japanese cuisine. (Yes, this month may have a theme) While it is a rather common sight, Southern California only seems to offer it at specialty Japanese grocery markets. It is often found bundled very neatly, stems bound with an impossibly small rubber band, looking dapper in a stark white styrofoam plate in the refrigerated section. A bundle of about 10 leaves will cost around $1.
There are two varieties, red and green leaf. Green is the most common and flavorful. The red is used primarily to color the bright red plum called umeboshi which are found in rice balls and popular in bento boxes. Japanese cuisine, where the decoration is edible and quite delicious. They know what’s up.
If I had to make a comparison of flavor strength to size ratio, Shiso and Basil could easily be in the same weight class; go stem to stem and round for round. It is a rather strong sharp almost spicy flavor with a back hint of sweet, similar to the mild sweetness of mint. Shiso can be used as an alternative to seaweed; wrapping it around sashimi to give that extra bite. There is an awesome restaurant in San Francisco’s Japantown called On the Bridge (go if you are a Japanese food fan). They serve the best shiso spaghetti. I don’t actually know the process, I’m sure it involves ancient kitchen ninjutsu secrets. OK, I guess it’s a pesto using shiso instead of basil and no pine nuts. It’s incredible.
In sushi bars shiso is misused, in my opinion, as a decoration. Similar to how Americans use kale as meat separator in cold cases or as a flurry of color around a buffet. I definitely save shiso in that setting snatching off the plate and onto mine. Similar to the condiment in last weeks post about furikake, shiso can also be thinly sliced and used as a garnish. Some of the higher end restaurants in Los Angeles use shiso as a garnish in cocktails. While it is not nutritionally significant or dense that doesn’t mean you can’t incorporate it into your eating lifestyle. Who knows, you may fall in love with it like I have.