Shiso: An Essential Japanese Herb

Shiso is considered one of Japan’s seven main flavorings, which have been in use in that nation’s cuisine for more than 300 years. Shiso started out as a Chinese medicinal herb that migrated to Japan in the eighth century. Its use was documented as a part of a medicinal formula that dates back to 1110 AD, in a book written during the Song Dynasty. The shiso plant is now cultivated throughout Southeast Asia and is used extensively in Japanese, Vietnamese and Korean cuisines. In Korea, the herb’s name translates to “wild sesame.” Note that shiso is not really a relative of the sesame plant.

In parts of North America, the shiso plant has become naturalized and can be invasive in some of those places; however, the weed varieties do not have the distinctive fragrance common to the cultivated varieties and are therefore inedible.

Flavor profile of shiso

Shiso comes in green, red and purple cultivars. While the red and purple types of shiso are popular for their ability to provide color to foods, the green variety has the best flavor. Shiso is a member of the mint family like basil and the flavor of basil is one of the flavor notes that will stand out to most westerners. There are also strong citrus, cinnamon and anise qualities, along with grassy undertones.

Health benefits of shiso

Shiso is widely used in Asian traditional medicine and it provides several essential nutrients, including:

  • Vitamins: Shiso contains high levels of vitamins C, A and K. It also contains significant amounts of several B-complex vitamins.
  • Minerals: A 100 g serving of shiso leaves provides 500 mg of potassium, which is more than 10 percent of what most adults need daily. That same serving size also provides a little more than 10 percent of an adult’s daily iron requirement and about 20 percent of the magnesium they need.
  • Anthocyanins: The pigments found in red and purple shiso fall into the same category as those found in fruits like blackberries and cranberries. They are flavonoids just like the lycopene found in red peppers and resveratrol found in grapes. In all cases, they are antioxidants with significant health benefits.

Shiso leaves can be used to treat or prevent health conditions such as:

  • Cold symptoms: Shiso leaf infusions have been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat coughs and other cold symptoms.
  • Digestive ailments: Shiso has antibacterial properties that when combined with its anti-inflammatory benefits, can help to treat both indigestion and food poisoning. Shiso is also a traditional treatment for morning sickness.
  • Allergies: Shiso may reduce allergy symptoms when eaten regularly. Compounds in shiso leaves reduce the production of a protein that causes certain immune cells to overreact when they encounter certain allergens.

Common uses of shiso

Shiso’s use is confined mainly to Asian countries where the red variety is used to color dishes including pickled ginger and plum sauce. Japanese cooks use the flowers to flavor bean curd and tempura; they also use the leaves to wrap meat and fish cakes, as a container for wasabi or as a condiment. In Korea, the herb is known as kkaenip and is used to make a type of kimchi. Vietnamese cooks use it in salads and soups as well as for cooking seafood.