With the rising popularity of Japanese cuisine worldwide, more and more of the country’s core ingredients are becoming recognizable to people across the globe. Take sea urchin, for example, or fish roe. These items may have elicited an “ick” reaction from Stateside diners a few years ago, but today they play prominent roles in Japanese restaurants and home kitchens in America.
And that brings us to shiso. The ornamental green (or, less commonly, red-purple) leaves are in the mint family and are often used to provide a refreshing garnish to fish, rice, tempura, soup and vegetable dishes in Japanese cooking. Known as “perilla leaf” in English, the herb “has a scent reminiscent of cinnamon and cloves,” according to Ralph Scamardella, corporate executive chef and partner at Tao Group, which operates more than 20 restaurants worldwide. Scamardella notes that the leaves are also widely used in Vietnam and Korea. “It provides the background for many sushi dishes and pairs well with wasabi and shoyu,” he adds.
Thinking about where you last spotted shiso leaf while dining out? Kaz Iimori, executive chef at Blue Ribbon Sushi in New York City, believes its most common use is as a bed for wasabi on sashimi plates. (Take our word for it, you’d much rather have a shiso leaf holding up your wasabi than one of those little plastic-grass thingies.) Think of it as Japanese mint, says Iimori. “It is known for its antibacterial qualities,” he says. “In Japan, we eat it by mixing it into pickles, salad or noodles. It’s very refreshing.” Shiso can be served either fresh or pickled — we’ve even seen it fried — and frequently makes appearances in sushi rolls. Iimori specifically singles out the ume shiso roll, a somewhat common vegetarian maki roll that is made with pickled plums and shiso.
Another sign of shiso’s fast-growing popularity? It’s used in lieu of mint in Tao’s signature mojito. If that’s not proof of an ingredient on the rise, we don’t know what is!