Thursday, June 29, 2006

Perilla, Shiso, Beefsteak Leaf, That Odd Lip-smacking Green Leaf You Get Served at Japanese Restaurants

Do you know the leaf I am talking about? It looks like this:

Shiso, or beefsteak plant, or perilla, silam, tia to, kemangi, duelkkae, pinyin, or "no-name accent green at Japanese restaurants" is a fun, minty, hard-to-define flavor. Kind of like arugula, but not. It's a tongue-tickling taste I cannot love more. Chopped finely and added as an accent to other veggies or rice or soups or noodles, shiso adds a unique something, which all but the most significant foodgeeks will be unable to place. What IS that bright, high-impact flavor?

You won't want to gobble down handfuls of shiso, because it is a strong force. But as an accent, an accompaniment to something bland, this mighty leaf packs a nice green punch. Sashimi is often served on a layer of shiso leaves, fanned out in a beautiful array. Thin slices of shiso get cut into various makizushi (rolled sushi), and are used as a topping for pasta dishes and soups in Japan. Other Asian countries love shiso as well--you can find it in Indonesia, Korea, China, all the way over to Nepal and India. And you will likely see more and more shiso wend its way to the gourmet American palate.

Where do you find shiso? You can grow it with little effort here in southern California and can sometimes (not frequently) find the young plants for sale at larger garden centers (like Green Thumb). If you do grow shiso, be sure to harvest the leaves when they are fully formed but not allowed to sit on the stems too long. Over a couple of weeks, shiso can become bitter. And if you have a choice between the green shiso and the red shiso, get the green--it tastes yummier and does better in a home garden.

You can find shiso at Asian grocers, usually in the refrigerated section, in little bundles tied with a rubber band, as shown above. Shiso is not cheap, but then again, you need only a little to have an impact. If you haven't tasted it yet, be sure to give shiso a nibble. As Marilyn Monroe sang, "You will be surprised."