Shiso, or perilla, is also known by its more common names of beefsteak plant or rattlesnake weed. It is a native of eastern Asia, where it is popular as a culinary and medicinal herb. The plant was brought to the U.S. as early as 1800 by Japanese and Korean immigrants, and it became known in port towns and along the coasts when the immigrants brought with them their favorite herbs. When many Japanese-Americans were interned in camps throughout the midwestern and southern states during World War II, the herb began to show up in the woods of those regions. It can now be found growing wild in much of Missouri, Arkansas and the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Japanese and Korean cooks use perilla leaves fresh or pickled to flavor rice, fish, soups and vegetables. They also use them chopped with gingerroot in stir-fries, tempura and salads, as well as serving the salted seeds as a snack. Green shiso leaves are used by the Japanese in western dishes as a substitute for sweet basil. Red shiso leaves can be used to make a pink-hued vinegar, and a lovely pink rice is achieved by mixing in a few chopped leaves just before serving. It also enhances the flavor of rice, tossed salads, soups and cheese balls. The seeds have a sweet, pungent taste and are especially good when crushed and added to herb mustards.
The medicinal uses of perilla include treatment of such ailments as indigestion, colds, malaria, coughs, and even cholera.
Commercial uses include the seed oil as a paint and ink dryer, in the making of linoleum, and as a preservative in soy sauce. It is sometimes used as a flavoring and in the manufacture of a sugar substitute. The leaves and seeds of the red shiso are combined with alum and used as a red dye for fabrics.
Perilla grows in any light from shade to full sun, and it can be started from seed in well-drained soil. Be sure to keep seedlings fairly dry until the plants reach two inches in height and pinch them back as they grow to make the plant bushy. After the first year, they easily self-seed.
Thanks to Mary Ellen Sronce (with assistance by Yokoi Kuniko) for this report on perilla. Mary Ellen also used The Herb Companion for Aug/Sept 1992 and Jun/July 1994, as well as Herbs by Martha Kraska from the Burpee American Gardening series.