Since our farm is not flat, we think our land is best suited for perennial plants, such as tree crops, berries, and herbs. We do not have a tractor (remember not flat, actually means steep grade..and there is the matter of three teenage boys), and we do not grow our own cabbage. Instead we rely on the wonderful organic farmers that are here in the Applegate.
In trying to maximize our small bits of flat growing space, I try to grow crops that I am less likely to find in abundance on the mainstage of the local growers. This year one of these specialty crops is Perilla. Its Japanese name is Shiso. The variety we have is the red shiso, which is known as Akajiso. It is the little cluster of leaves that you see in with pickled ginger or sometimes Umeboshi plums. These leaves are what provide the red coloring in both these foods.
It is in the mint family of herbs, as is basil. Reading about its culinary history and uses in Japan, Korea, China, South Asia, Vietnam, or Laos I came to think it is an herb as important as basil (also in the mint family) is to the Mediterranean cultures. It is used not only for its flavor but can be ranked as a medicinal food. Nutritionally powerful it is rich in minerals and vitamins. It is a warming herb with anti-inflammatory properties and stimulates the immune system. Perilla is a tonic, is great for the digestive system and is thought to help preserve and sterilize other foods. The most blatant example of this is its traditional use in Japan with shashimi (raw fish). It preservative qualities make it useful for people who make flower essences without the use of alcohol.
Traditionally these leaves have been preserved in salt. I am not sure how to describe the flavor, the concentration of essential oils make for a strong taste, I have read described as anything from fennel, to mint, to cinnamon. I can’t say that any of those fit my reaction to the flavor, but I suppose our individual chemistry may be part of how we all taste differently. I can say that I do not care for it fresh, however I love the change that comes over it with fermentation.
We have been putting it in krauts, and the flavor is great. This next week we will be traditionally salt preserving the leaves. These whole pickled leaves, being incredible rich food, can be used not just as condiment on the side of your meal but also wrappers for small handrolls.