This is an indispensable herb if you are a fan of sushi or Asian cooking in general (especially Japanese). In the mint family (also sometimes called perilla or beefsteak plant) Shiso has a huge host of potential uses that have not been tapped since is has been primarily used in Asian dishes. It’s use in western cooking is open for anyone who wants to explore.
It’s unique aromatic smell is unlike any of the mints I have ever come encountered. While presenting the hallmark fresh flavor that all mints exhibit, there is a hint of heartiness, a slight savory flavor to shiso–it may be to the distinctive terpene present in it’s chemistry called perillaldehyde.
Shiso is usually a green herb. There are red varieties, green-leafed varieties with red undersides, variegated plants and the gorgeous Korean shiso: The standard, ratty-looking green shiso is the most useful. The red shiso is useful not only as an herb, but as a red dye element for pickling. Korean shiso is a gorgeous two-toned plant, with shapely leaves.
The best place for Shiso is in full sun when frost is no longer a threat though plants can tolerate some shade. Shiso needs light to germinate and the seeds are very fine. On well-prepared soil, spread out seed evenly. Thin appropriately when seedlings are large enough to handle. Eventually shiso will self-seed in the garden.
Shiso is undemanding. It will grow in garden soil, or even un-amended soil so long as there is moisture and the drainage is decent. As with all plants, once seedlings are tall enough, plants enjoy a little mulching. Pinch flower stalks as you would basil to keep plants leafy. But if you want shiso to seed for next season, or if you want to use the flower spikes, let them go to seed. Plants will be finished off by frost when winter comes.
The seeds, leaves and flowers spikes are all used for flavoring. Shiso is used in sushi and other fish dishes, and with grilled meats. Red shiso is used to help color and flavor umeboshi (a type of delicious pickled plum). Cooking oil is also derived from the Korean variety. The ground seed of shiso is one of the ingredients in Japanese seven spice (also known as shichimi). Shiso leaves combine nicely with cucumbers and cabbage.Use shiso as a garnish on Asian dishes combined with grated radish. Used in tempura, the leaves are often battered and deep fried (YUM I am getting hungry). Shiso is added to all kinds of pickled foods. Seedlings can be used as “microgreens”, greens that are harvested at about 2 inches tall when they are tender, vitamin-rich and delicious.
As with many Asian crops, one of the best sources for most types of shiso is Kitazawa Seed Company. In addition Johnny’s Selected Seed has a nice selection of a green-and-red variety called ‘Briton’. Beware that less reputable companies will sell Coleus as shiso. While looking similar to shiso, especially the Korean type, it is not useful in cooking.