The leaf and oil of the perilla (or, beefsteak plant) is used extensively in Japanese cuisine - the leaf, most notably, in the presentation of sashimi.
As a member of the mint family, along with basil, it has a flavor close to mint, but with a distinctive pungency that is somewhat less savory than mint or basil.
Perilla is shiso (紫蘇) in Japanese, the shi being the kanji for the word murasaki meaning "purple, violet." This reflects there being several varieties of shiso commonly used in Japan: varying in color between green, purple and combinations of the two. However, the purely green variety seems to come into more common use than the purple-shaded ones. The second kanji, so, is for yomigaeru meaning to be resurrected, revived, rehabilitated.
This combination of characters comes from the place perilla holds in Japanese and Chinese culture not just as a culinary ingredient, but as a medicinal ingredient, too: originally, so the story goes, being used an antidote to food poisoning, and the purple varieties also used also as an antidote to depression. Scientifically, perilla is said to be rich in numerous kinds of vitamins and minerals, and of verifiable efficacy in helping relieve symptoms of the common cold.
The leaves of perilla are roundish and serrated (photo above), and its inflorescence is striking for the symmetrical arrangement of slightly spiraling flower buds (photo below).
Perilla is easily grown. The pictured specimen is on this writer’s balcony. It requires only the basic minimum upkeep: daily watering with a drop of fertilizer once a week.
Next time you’re out dining Japanese, keep an eye out for that shiso leaf, and give it its due.
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