Alys Fowler

The herb that’s so much more than a gar­nish

The Guardian - Weekend - - Contents -

All about shiso

Shiso per­illa, bet­ter known as shiso in Ja­panese, tai to in Vietnamese and kkaen­nip or ggaenip in Korean, is one of those herbs that, if you know of it, you rave about and have myr­i­ads of recipes, in­clud­ing one for mo­ji­tos. I am ex­per­i­ment­ing with shiso soda as we speak. To every­one else it’s the herb that looks like net­tles you’ll have tasted per­haps as tem­pura or wrapped around a fancy bit of sushi.

But it is far more than a gar­nish and once you get a taste for it, you may find you want a ready sup­ply, so it makes sense to grow your own. If you don’t fall in love with its taste, you will with its looks. It’s a very hand­some plant.

There are two main types of per­illa: Per­illa frutescens (left and bot­tom left), the stan­dard red and green forms, and

P. frutescens var. crispa (cen­tre), which is the curly pur­ple­leaved form of­ten used in bed­ding dis­plays (the Vic­to­ri­ans were very fond of it).

The green form is more flavour­some and the one most widely used in cook­ing. The taste is hard to pin down – it is in the mint fam­ily and there’s def­i­nitely a strong note of that, as well as co­rian­der, basil, cin­na­mon, anise, some­thing a lit­tle per­fumed and a hint of cit­rus. It’s odd and not like any­thing else, but it is quickly very ad­dic­tive.

The red and pur­ple forms are tra­di­tion­ally used in pick­ling where it tinges ev­ery­thing a vi­o­let hue, in­clud­ing ume­boshi, the Ja­panese sour plum pickle. Say­ing that, the baby leaves of these make a de­light­ful gar­nish and it’s worth grow­ing them as a mi­croleaf for this rea­son. If you want large leaves, though, you’ll need to give them space, 30cm each way be­tween plants, and both green and pur­ple forms will do best in full sun, well-drained soil and can hap­pily be grown in a pot – just keep pinch­ing out the grow­ing tips.

Soak­ing the seed for four to eight hours be­fore sow­ing speeds up ger­mi­na­tion. Per­illa needs to ger­mi­nate in damp con­di­tions at around 20C so it’s best started off in a heated prop­a­ga­tor with ei­ther a prop­a­ga­tor lid or a clear plas­tic bag to keep in mois­ture.

It also needs light to ger­mi­nate, so cover it with the bare min­i­mum of com­post or sur­face sow. It should be up in 14 days and you can prick plants out at three to five leaves. Per­illa is not frost hardy, so plant out well af­ter any threat. Ma­ture leaves can be har­vested eight weeks af­ter sow­ing and you’ll be able to con­tinue to har­vest all sum­mer

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