Plant Profile: Sexy Shiso

Shiso (Perilla frutescens) is a fragrant, summery plant with pretty red or green leaves and a bright, herbaceous perfume. Sometimes mistaken for stinging nettle, the plant has a long lineage of use, predominantly in Japanese cuisine, although in recent years its unique aroma has been increasingly explored in the West. Vibrant, green and vegetal, its flavour profile is often likened to fennel, basil and mint, with hints of citrus.

A plant of the seasons, many parts of the shiso bush can be used throughout their stages of growth. In the spring, the young, germinated sprouts, thinned from the seedlings, add tiny splashes of graduated color to platters of sashimi – ornamentation for a culture for whom ritual and visual presentation are as important as taste. Come summer, warm rays coax forth a spray of pale pink blossoms, which can be plucked, pickled and tossed into salads. Late autumn and cool winds coincide with the harvesting of the seedpods which often reappear on the Japanese table as a crispy, yet delicate tempura.

The main culinary attraction – the leaves of the green shiso plant – are often rolled and chiffonaded as a garnish, folded into mentaiko (spicy cod roe) pasta or laid flat as a bed for unctuous slabs of raw fish. These leaves, preserved in salt, are also a popular wrapping for onigiri (Japanese rice balls) and in bento boxes – as much for their taste as for their purported antibiotic properties. The legacy of the red shiso, on the other hand, lies almost exclusively in the distinctive, blushing tinge it imparts to umeboshi (pickled plums) and preserved ginger.

Too spicy to be eaten raw, the leaves of the red shiso plant must be cooked in order to mitigate their harshness. Shiso cordial, a refreshing elixir made with the leaves of both shiso plants, delicately balances the differing qualities of the two colours. Brewed entirely with the leaves of the green, the drink will be too mellow – the addition of the red leaves heightens the flavour while imparting a gorgeously blushing hue. Furikake, a salty seasoning for rice, similarly plays on the qualities of both the green and red foliage, using leaves plucked and dried at the height of summer to best preserve their taste.

Fast forward to contemporary times and Pepsi’s summer flavor, Pepsi Shiso, plays testament to Japan’s enduring love affair with shiso. Avant-garde Japanese fashion label, Comme des Garcons, captivated another of the senses when, in 2000, it unveiled, amongst its series of ‘Leaf’ fragrances, a limited edition ‘Shiso’ perfume.

Here on our gilded shores, shiso awaits discovery on the refrigerated shelves of many Asian supermarkets. It’s often found sandwiched between its more common relatives, Vietnamese basil and mint. While yet to flood the floors of mainstream nurseries, perilla frutescens is in fact well-suited to the many temperate climates to which Australia plays host, including much of Victoria, NSW and Tasmania. A quick internet search confirms this – many boutique nurseries stock the seeds online, deliverable to your doorstep within a day or two. In light of this, shiso’s wider acceptance into the mainstream seems inevitable – and not a moment too soon. With herbal elixirs now jostling for bar space alongside more traditional brews, it doesn’t seem long before we’ll be seeing shiso-inspired cocktails popping up on the menus of the finest bars in the city.