What is shiso, an essential plant in Asian cuisine, and what uses for it in the kitchen


Asian cuisine in general, and Japanese in particular, has not only made ginger, seaweed or soy sauce popular in the West. Increasingly present in restaurants of all kinds, the shiso It is becoming an essential ingredient in the kitchen of great chefs, and its use at a more domestic level will not take long to democratize.

The sometimes misnamed Japanese basil is actually more like mint or spearmint. This pretty leafy plant is often used for ornamental purposes but it also adds a very special flavor and aroma to both savory and sweet dishes, even alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks.

It is not difficult to find it as part of the bombastic name of those Michelin restaurant dishes that always list an endless list of ingredients, although then its presence is reduced to an almost testimonial amount. But shiso has much more potential than the already hackneyed sprouted or nondescript parsley, and it is not as hoarding as coriander.

Shiso Pepsi in Japan.

Despite the fact that in these parts it is still presented as an almost gourmet luxury product, typical of refined kitchens, in Asia shiso is used as a common and popular ingredient present even in soft drink brands. In our country little by little it is beginning to be seen in specialized greengrocers, Asian product stores and large supermarkets.

Characteristics and varieties

The shiso (シソ) or Perilla frutescens var. crispa, whose name in our language would be perilla leaf -although we already predict that it will stay with the Japanese name forever-, is a plant of the genus Knob belonging to the Lamiaceae. The family of Lamiaceae It is made up of thousands of species, among which are some of the most common aromatics, such as spearmint or sage.

It is an annual perennial of Asian origin, cultivable in temperate climates, although it also spreads easily as a wild herb. It is believed that the first varieties arose in China and from there they would spread throughout the continent, reaching Japanese land around the 8th or 9th century. It is widely used in Asian cuisine, particularly in Korea, Vietnam, Laos, the Philippines, Thailand, and of course Japan.

According to Roger Ortuño in his book Oishii - Illustrated Dictionary of Japanese Gastronomy, there are two basic varieties: the aojiso or green shiso, and akajiso or red shiso, with a shade between reddish and purple, and which may have been the most common in Japan until more recent decades. There are also plants with a darker reddish color and a more wrinkled texture, and others that exhibit two colors.

All varieties are distinguished by the drop shape of their leaves, halfway between mint and nettle. They are wide and oval, with pointed tips and a serrated profile. The thin stalks are rarely used in cooking, although they are also edible, as are the shoots and small seeds. The cocoons of shiso o shisonomi they are also a popular ingredient in Japanese cuisine.

Flavor and properties

Its leaves are very pretty, but what does shiso taste like? Logically, you have to taste it to know it properly, but we could describe its flavor as a kind of milder mint, slightly spicy and bitter, with acid and sweet touches. Green leaves are usually somewhat more intense, but if something defines shiso it is its cooling power.

Uni (sea urchin) on shiso leaves.

The pungent aromas of the perilla leaf and that natural freshness make it a wild ingredient that goes with almost everything. We also use mint and spearmint for sweet and salty cooking, but shiso is much more subtle and elegant, more pleasant to eat directly raw and definitely not as powerful as coriander leaves.

Depending a little on the variety, the pairing and the palate of each person, shiso can be found more citrus or bitter nuances, reminiscent of other spices such as cumin, anise, cinnamon or cloves. It is also possible to distinguish more notes of nuts or wood, always with a bitter floral aftertaste in the background, and umami.

Shiso leaf tempura stuffed with uni (sea urchin).

Like other herbs of the same family, shiso has also been used in traditional medicine as a remedy for digestive and respiratory problems and to treat allergies, due to its supposed antibacterial, antihistamine and antioxidant properties; It can be consumed as an infusion and its essential oil is also used.

But beyond the survival of these popular uses, the perilla leaf has become popular throughout the world as an ornamental plant and, increasingly, as an ingredient suitable for any style of cuisine, with a very prominent presence in the sweet world.

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