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The Local Food Report
As we re-imagine our relationships to what we eat, Local Food Report creator Elspeth Hay takes us to the heart of the local food movement to talk with growers, harvesters, processors, cooks, policy makers and visionaries

The Leafy Japanese Herb with the Indescribable Taste: Shiso

Elspeth Hay
Shiro in the garden. Gardener Dave Dewitt says this is the best time of year to plant shiro.

Dave Dewitt has a hard time describing the taste of the leafy Japanese herb called shiso.

“I have no description,”  he said, “because there’s no reference point in my dietary world that tastes like this.”

We stood in Dewitt’s garden, and he was holding a serrated green leaf from the patch of perilla frutescens in front of us. It’s also known as beefsteak plant, or shiso, and I first tasted it with sushi. I’d never seen it grown locally until I noticed Dewitt selling it in bunches at the Orleans Farmers market.

‘The Japanese sushi market is the premier market for it,” Dewitt said. “In the summer time, they’re spending 10 cents per leaf in wintertime they spend 25-45 cents per leaf.”

And why do they want it?

“It’s been used in Japan for thousands of years,” Dewitt said. “It’s in the mint family. The serrated, sharply edged leaf is on pretty much every sashimi plate that you see—not just for decoration, but it aids in breaking down protein. It’s there for you to eat it after you’re done with your meal, to help break down the meal that you’ve just consumed.”

Shiso also has a lot of other health-promoting qualities. It’s said to be anti-inflammatory and help prevent food poisoning—another reason to serve it with raw fish. And it’s also supposed to fight respiratory illnesses and keep up a healthy immune system.

Dewitt started growing shiso as an ornamental, but he quickly realized it was edible too.

“So I went to a few sushi restaurants down Cape and began to offer the plant for sale,”  he said.  “[I was greeted] with huge open arms from chefs. They were very excited to get local shiso. All of a sudden it’s like, ‘Yeah, maybe I should just grow some for my stand and see if people start to take it.’ And people have fallen in love with it. You either like it or you don’t, it’s that kind of plant. It’s a pretty intense flavor. A lot some people say cumin, some say cinnamon, some say anise. All these flavors come out. It’s a little nutty at times. So I started putting it in my salad mix.”

Me? The closest I can get to describing the flavor is that it reminds me of Vietnamese noodle soup—it has hints of cilantro, anise, cinnamon, and basil. Dewitt says people at the farmers’ markets are always asking him for recipes.

“My favorite is a dumpling wrap,” he told me. “I make either a shrimp or pork dumpling. I wrap the filling in the leaves, kind of like a stuffed grape leaf. I lay it out in a casserole dish, put little bit of vegetable stock covering it and panko bread crumbs–sometimes I’ll tap a little smoked paprika as almost a garnish on top. Then bake it until it’s crispy and cooked. That’s probably my favorite of all. I make a pesto out of it, which is a phenomenal pesto. It’s very bold and strong like the plant flavor. And it works out really well with steaks, lamb chops, any kind of heavier meat.

I think it would be great in a fresh tomato salsa, or anywhere that you’d traditionally use oregano, basil, or thyme. Dave says the best time to plant shiso is now.

“The seeds that are planted in the spring tend to be kind of spindly plants and not quite as bushy,” he explained. “It grows best if the seed is left in the soil over the winter. So if you buy a packet of seed from Johnny’s, I think it would be best to buy it now and sprinkle it where you want to plant it.”

Here Shiso first comes into season in late July or early August and lasts well through the fall.

By the way, there’s also a red variety of shiso. It is edible, but is mainly used in Japan to dye pickled umeboshi plums a deep magenta color.

Here are some links to give an idea of the many ways shiro can be prepared. Enjoy!

Shiso pesto

Dumplings with shiso (Shiso gyoza)

Pork Katsu with pickled cucumbers and shiro

And for growing shiso, some good tips here. 

An avid locavore, Elspeth lives in Wellfleet and writes a blog about food. Elspeth is constantly exploring the Cape, Islands, and South Coast and all our farmer's markets to find out what's good, what's growing and what to do with it. Her Local Food Report airs Thursdays at 8:30 on Morning Edition and 5:45pm on All Things Considered, as well as Saturday mornings at 9:30.