I didn't even hear my cat-footed co-worker leave the bag of shiso leaves on my porch. But, to my joy, there it was: a dozen or more peach-fuzzed, feathery edged, heart-shaped shiso leaves, green on one side, purple on the other. Last week she'd sent me an email asking what I do with shiso — I followed up a breathless list of options by asking, "Are you holding?"
The delicate, grassy mint flavor of shiso seems an absolutely Japanese flavor to me, whether fresh with sashimi, dried and sprinkled over rice, or pickled with umeboshi, preserved plums. But it hails from China and adds herby notes to Southeast Asian cooking — in Laos it's pak maengda. Belonging to the genus Perilla, it's sometimes among the plant starts as beefsteak plant (evidently inspired by color) or, according to one state park website, rattlesnake plant (inspired by the sound of seed pods). If you've been growing it as an ornamental (people do), spot it at the market or are lucky enough to receive a contactless delivery of it on your porch, here are some ideas for enjoying shiso. If you're already a fan, it would be unfair of you not to share your favorite serving methods — so do tell.
The shiso leaves my co-worker gave me are larger and heartier than the jade green ones that frequently show up as garnish beside sashimi. But the flavor of the sushi-grade mahi mahi I bought at Little Japan stood up well cradled in a strip of leaf and dipped in soy sauce. While at the shop, I also grabbed a package of needle-thin wheat somen noodles, the unsung heroes of summer. Served cold — sometimes over ice — they're enlivened by a chiffonade of shiso and dipped in cool broth, as in the recipe below. And they cook in a grand total of 3 minutes. Take that, capellini.
But you know what? Get some angel hair pasta, too. Toss it hot with butter, salt and the same shiso chiffonade. A handful of sliced cherry tomatoes, maybe a fried egg with a runny yolk on top, and you have a light summer meal or at least the primi course. And I'm not ready to call it pesto exactly (my Sicilian mother-in-law might see this), but pureed shiso leaves with olive oil and salt are a fine addition to grilled vegetables, too.
Salads benefit from the slight bitterness and mint, too. Slice some Persian cucumbers, sprinkle them with salt. After they've sat a few minutes, squeeze them in your hands and toss them with a teaspoon or more of sesame oil, finely sliced shiso and halved cherry tomatoes.
Shiso also cooks well. In fact, the single fragile leaf in a box of tempura, its thin lace of batter like late frost, might be my favorite. If you're making dumplings, consider slipping a leaf — or part of one in the case of these palm-sized specimens — into the skin before you add the filling and pinch it closed. Not only is it fragrant, but it's all fancy showing through the translucent wrapper. A shiso leaf wrapped around a shrimp, a morsel of chicken or a cube of tofu before brushing with soy sauce and grilling or pan frying is a nice change of pace.
The thing to do really is to rinse and pat dry a fresh leaf and smell it. Tear off a piece and taste it. Then rifle through your refrigerator and experiment. Should you muddle it into a cocktail? Add it to your next batch of poke? Only one way to find out.
Somen with Shiso
Dashi can be made with instant powder (no shame) according to box instructions or by boiling dry bonito flakes with kombu and salt. The middle path is boiling tea bag-like pouches of dashi ingredients — they yield complex flavor with little effort. You can also skip making soup over a hot stove by picking up a bottle of tsuyu, concentrated soup base that works with somen, udon and soba noodles. Make a stronger soup to dip your noodles or thin it a bit with cold water to pour over the noodles. A few shrimp or some shredded chicken breast make nice additions.
4 bundles dry somen noodles
For the broth:
1 tablespoon sake
1/8 cup mirin
1/8 cup Japanese soy sauce
1 ¼ cup dashi broth
Finely sliced shiso
Sliced boiled egg
Ground fresh ginger
Sliced green onion
In a small saucepan, bring the soy sauce, mirin and sake to a boil, and remove from heat. Add the dashi and let cool.
Boil the somen and rinse them in a colander. Place them in a large bowl of ice water until chilled.
Serve in bowls with your chosen toppings, adding broth to the noodles or in smaller bowls on the side for dipping.
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.