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Asian Herbs Thrive in Barrington Gardens

This year, consider adding versatile shiso to your herb garden.

Barrington is blessed with three farmers markets.  Throughout the summer and well into fall, part of my weekly ritual is heading down to Haines Park on Wednesday afternoon.  

My favorite stop there is Oakdale Farms, a five-generation family farm in Rehoboth.  In addition to their organically grown produce, they sell potted plants.

I’ve bought several herbs that I haven’t seen elsewhere, including a wonderful Vietnamese cilantro that doesn’t bolt in the heat of summer, and a variety of Thai basil with tiny, flavorful leaves. The plants adapted quite happily to my herb garden. 

The success of these new additions prompted me to widen my herbal vocabulary. A recipe in Gourmet Game Nights (available in the Barrington library) caught my eye:  tiny shrimp cakes wrapped in shiso leaves.

I’d never heard of shiso, but I found a package of the Korean variety in Asiana Food Market (92 Warren St., East Providence) and gave the recipe a try. 

In a word, yum.

The flavor of shiso is difficult to describe.  Like basil, it’s a member of the mint (Lamiaceae) family.  It’s variously compared to cumin, cilantro and parsley, with a hint of cinnamon or anise or citrus.  

Shiso is widely used in Japan.  When I mentioned this new find to my son’s girlfriend, a grad student from Okinawa, her face brightened with nostalgia and she mentioned that shiso is her favorite salad. The leaves are also used in Japan as a sushi wrap, in tempura, or dried and used as a flavoring for rice.

The herb is used throughout Asia.  In China it’s referred to as bai su.  India knows it as salim.  In Vietnam it’s tia to and in Korean, kkaennip.  It’s frequently referred to as perilla, from the Latin name for the plant’s genus.

This herb is astonishingly versatile.  I’ve seen recipes for shiso aioli and a Perilla Punch—a mojito variation made with rum, pineapple, and crushed shiso leaves.  It can be added to fresh fruit and iced green tea, or included in pesto.  It is wonderful with sea food. The flowers are edible and have a similar flavor, so they can be added to salads or used as garnishes.

There are several types of shiso.  The Korean leaves are large and broad, ideal for wraps.  Varieties include green, red, and a bi-color that’s red on the bottom and bronze-green on top.  The red varieties have a stronger flavor that leans toward anise.  All varieties are considered easy to grow.  No need to fuss with seedlings—they’re direct sown after the last frost.

 I like to add a couple of new plants to my garden every year.  I’ve ordered seeds for Korean and red shiso, and I strongly suspect that next year I’ll be adding more.  

 To order shiso seed: 

 www.kitazawaseed.com/seed_035-169.html

www.johnnyseeds.com/search.aspx?SearchTerm=shiso

Elaine Cunningham February 22, 2011 at 09:49 PM
A quick follow-up regarding Kitazawa Seed Company. USDA requires that all seeds imported from Korea be treated with the pesticide THIRAM. All other varieties are fine, but I don't recommend the Korean Perilla.
grace delano March 09, 2011 at 11:16 PM
I am interested in why no recommendation on the Korean Perilla. I thought the thiram will be a wash by the time you are harvesting the leaves. I just got a packet from kitazawa and had no idea of the regulations about Korean imports. Please explain your thoughts thanks
Elaine Cunningham March 10, 2011 at 02:09 AM
I prefer organic gardening and am hesitant to recommend anything treated with industrial pesticides. Too many approved chemicals are later found to have dangerous properties, and I prefer to err on the side of caution. Your milage may vary. Thiram is mildly toxic if ingested and highly toxic if inhaled. Fortunately, it breaks down quickly in the soil, but one of the breakdown products, ETU, is linked to cancer in test animals and is considered a "probable carcinogen" for humans. I've read that ETU residue washes off leaves, so it's likely that your Korean Perilla will be fine. What is less clear is how long ETU remains in the soil and ground water, and its longterm effect on the environment, . Another concern I have with Thiram involves handling the treated seeds during planting. Thiram is irritating to the skin, eyes, and respiratory system. I have asthma, so I try to avoid substances that are probable triggers. In the past, I've had problems with itchy, irritated skin after handling flower bulbs and non-organic seed potatoes treated with fungicide. That same irritation occurred when I picked up the Korean Perilla package, even before I realized the seeds were treated. Perhaps I'm unusually sensitive to chemicals, but having recommended the Korean perilla and provided a link to Kitazawa Seeds, I felt it necessary to add this caveat so that people who are concerned about pesticides can weigh the available information on Thiram and make an informed decision.

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