What Are Shiso Leaves?

Buying, Cooking, and Recipes

Fresh shiso leaves

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You may have encounter bright green shiso leaves adorning your plate while dining at an upscale sushi restaurant, but the herb is more than just a garnish. It can add color and flavor to a range of dishes.

Fast Facts

  • Other Names: perilla leaf or Japanese basil
  • Varieties: red or green
  • Origin: Japan
  • Similar Plant: mint

What Are Shiso Leaves?

Shiso leaves are an aromatic herb from the same botanical family as mint that traditionally accompanies sushi and sashimi. They are meant to be eaten along with the main item on the plate.

If you've ever had a tray of sushi or a Japanese bento box and noticed those strips of fake plastic grass separating the items, that's supposed to replicate of shiso leaves, with the plastic trimmed to represent the shiso leaves' characteristic ruffled, saw-toothed edges. 

That's because shiso is traditionally used to separate the items in a tray or platter, to keep the flavors of different items from blending together. Shiso leaves are also credited with antibacterial properties, ascribed to compounds called phytoncides, which are believed to help prevent the spoilage of food that is wrapped in the leaves. Indeed, for centuries the Japanese have used shiso leaves to help slow the spoilage of raw fish and seafood.

Depending on your location, shiso can be a bit hard to find fresh and can be slightly more expensive than other fresh herbs. It is sometimes available frozen or as a dried herb.

Varieties

There are two main types of shiso leaves that are used in cooking: green and red. Green shiso leaves are more common by far; red shiso leaves are also edible, but they have a more astringent and bitter flavor. Red shiso leaves are mostly used for dyeing foods a red color, such as pickled plums, known as umeboshi, and pickled ginger

Red shiso leaves are also the main ingredient in making a refreshing beverage called shiso juice. Shiso juice is prepared by simmering red shiso leaves, then straining and reducing the liquid along with sugar and vinegar to form a syrup. This syrup is then combined with sparkling water and served over ice. The resulting drink has a vivid red color similar to that of cranberry juice.

Shiso Leaf Uses

Shiso leaves are more than just a divider or an edible garnish—they are often included as an ingredient in the sushi itself. The herb pairs well with fatty fish like salmon, yellowtail, and tuna, and can be enjoyed by wrapping a whole leaf around a piece of sashimi and dipping it in soy sauce.

Shiso also complements vegetables and fruits. Julienned shiso leaves are often mixed with salads to add a fresh, citrusy flavor. Whole shiso leaves are sometimes made into tempura by dipping them in a light batter and frying until crispy and puffy. It's a popular ingredient in Vietnamese summer rolls. 

Shiso is also a popular ingredient in drinks and desserts, including a frozen dessert called granita, mojito cocktails, and for making simple syrup. It is also dried and ground and used as a seasoning and sprinkled on rice, omelets, and soups, much like dried nori.

One traditional use for shiso leaves is wrapping the popular snack shiso maki, where shiso leaves are wrapped around a filling of sweetened miso paste and other ingredients, including eggplant and roasted crushed walnuts, then skewered and fried until crispy.

What Does It Taste Like?

Shiso leaves have a fresh, citrusy flavor with hints of cinnamon, cloves, and mint. They have a somewhat astringent flavor and bitter finish, particularly the red shiso leaves. The texture is similar to fresh mint leaves, while dried shiso has a more subdued flavor.

Shiso Leaf Recipes

Shiso leaves can be used similarly to mint in cocktails, desserts, and syrups for a different flavor. Serve with fresh sushi for a classic presentation, or add to summer rolls and sauces.

Where to Buy Shiso Leaves

You can buy shiso leaves at most Asian grocery stores, especially larger ones with dedicated produce departments, and Japanese grocery stores in particular. In addition to fresh leaves, shiso leaves are also available frozen, packed in sesame oil, and dried and ground. Fresh leaves are sold by the ounce or bunch alongside other fresh herbs.

Storage

Fresh shiso leaves need to be kept in the refrigerator in the crisper. They dry out easily, so when you're working with them, it helps to keep them covered with a damp cloth or paper towel. Fresh shisho can last a few days but use as soon as possible for best results. Dried shiso should be stored the same as other dried herbs (in an airtight container in a cool, dark, dry place), and frozen shiso should be kept fully frozen until use.

Nutrition and Benefits

Shiso leaves are not a significant source of calories or other nutrients, but shiso has also been credited with antibacterial properties, ascribed to compounds called phytoncides, which are said to inhibit the growth of bacteria in food. The herb is low fat, low cholesterol, and low carb.