Monday, September 19, 2011

Red Shiso (Perilla) for Herbal Tea

In this post I want to write about a fascinating herb which is important both as an herbal tea its own right, for blending with Japanese green teas, and for culinary uses. The English common name is Perilla, but as this herb is not well-known in Western cultures, and many people have not heard of it under this name. In Japanese, it is referred to as Shiso(紫蘇). If you want to learn more about this herb, there is a good Wikipedia page on perilla. The plant is in the mint family, the same family which also contains basil and coleus. Here is a picture of red shiso, a red-leafed variety of Perilla frutescens (there are several different species in the Perilla genus); this picture shows the clear visual resemblance to basil and coleus:

Shiso has a variety of uses. One of them is in blending with Japanese green tea, usually sencha. On RateTea I created a page for Shiso sencha, but the only two listings have both been discontinued. I haven't exhaustively searched for other providers of this sort of blend, but a quick google search shows that they are available, so hopefully I can get to adding some more soon. In Japan, shiso is used not only as a seasoning but also a vegetable.

The flavor and aroma of Shiso is is relatively mild but has a lot of different components to it. It is mildly suggestive of anise or licorice, but also somewhat resembles mint and basil, and it has a faint skunky quality. It is milder in flavor than basil and much milder than mint. I have found that many people find it very pleasing, but a small number of people find it to have an unpleasant aroma.

Perilla / Shiso Naturalizes Easily:

I took this photo in an alley or very small street in center city Philadelphia. This plant is widely used as a landscaping plant in Philadelphia, often co-planted with the tropical plant Coleus, which bears superficial resemblance to it. But, in contrast to the tropical Coleus, which cannot survive the cold winters in temperate climates, Perilla is adapted to cold-winter regions, and will easily naturalize. In Philadelphia and surrounding areas, it grows wild, coming up from seed (and usually retaining its red color). Some people even view it as an invasive species. Here is a picture of it coming up wild in a Philadelphia sidewalk:

Perilla is a highly vigorous plant, growing in between cracks in brick sidewalks, up against buildings, and in flower beds. As it is often planted deliberately, it's sometimes hard to tell where it has been planted and where it has come up naturally.

Herbal Tea from Red Shiso:

I gathered a bunch of this plant while on a walk in my neighborhood the other day, and brewed up a batch of it as a fresh herbal tea. The infusion shows a brownish purple color:

It was quite delicious. Like the dry leaf, the infusion smelled somewhere in between anise, basil, and mint, and had a slightly skunky finish. It was exceptionally smooth on the palate, and had a slightly sweet flavor, with only a hint of bitterness, and no astringency. Although some people might not like it because of the mild skunkiness, overall, I found this drink to be very pleasing and I could see drinking this regularly.

Eating Perilla:

In my last post, herbal infusions and cooked vegetable broth, I made the point that we often discard the broth after cooking vegetables, and that this broth can be viewed as an herbal infusion, and drunk. Conversely, when brewing an herbal infusion from fresh leaves, instead of discarding the steeped leaves, we can eat them as a vegetable. In accordance with the Japanese use of Shiso as a vegetable, I decided to eat the leaves leftover after steeping, and they were delicious! They had a mild flavor, similar to the infusion, and were fairly tender in texture, certainly more tender than a variety of greens, like collards or kale, which are widely consumed in the U.S.

Have you tried Shiso or Perilla?

Did you know about this herb before reading this post? Have you ever used it as a seasoning? Grown it? Eaten it? Infused it, either on its own, or blending it with sencha or other tea?


  1. My grandmother had this stuff lining her walkway like coleus plants. We never knew this what this plant was or that it was edible. I was thrilled to find seeds to grow this plant since I haven't seen it since I was about 10. And to find out that it was edible and had nutritional properties was an extra added bonus!

    1. Yes! It's pretty exciting; I may have passed it off as red coleus earlier on. There is a red variety of coleus, and it does look superficially quite similar, but it is easily distinguished as coleus has almost no smell, and shiso or perilla is quite aromatic.

      Also, to my knowledge, coleus cannot overwinter in most of the US, whereas shiso overwinters easily, even in pretty cold regions.