Shiso fish skewers with vermicelli salad

Red shiso (perilla) leaf illustration by Alex HotchinRed shiso (perilla) growing in the summer vegetable garden

Herewith an ode to one of my favourite herbs – one I think you should bring into your kitchen. Perhaps even your garden!? Yes, I’ve taken a deep dive into all things shiso (perilla/beefsteak plant/purple mint) since growing it in my veggie patch the last few summers, and I’ve discovered so much. There are things I want to share with you – a magical iced tea, Korean pickled shiso, and many more ideas for what you can make with a little market bunch or a whole crop. Plus there’s a recipe for shiso fish skewers, my riff on the classic Vietnamese ‘beef in betel leaf’. Come along for the journey! I’ll also tell you about the beautiful image above …

The illustration is by friend and wonder Alex Hotchin, and it comes from our new Unsung Edibles project – Vegetables and Herbs of the World. Together we made an art print featuring eight beautiful ingredients that are easy to find at multicultural markets, but which you may not have tried … The print, which can be framed as a piece of art, comes with a small card of info about the season in which you can find each ingredient, how to prepare it, and cooking ideas. Now that the print has made it out into the world, I plan to write a recipe for each ingredient, so keep a watch for the other seven on this blog down the track.

Shiso is a herb I discovered in my early twenties. I’d moved from the country and started cooking for myself at age seventeen, and in a few years discovered shopping at city markets – feeling something switch on inside me when standing before an abundance of inexpensive produce, including so many things I’d never seen or tried before. It was colour that led me to pick up a bunch of red shiso, and I found the fragrance so entrancing.

Smells are tricky to describe; an earlier me wrote this herb smells like satay sauce. Unusual, but I think there’s something in it (what I meant was a really good satay with kecap manis, a little palm sugar and lots of aromatics). There are hints of cumin, citrus, mint and pepper. Shiso’s bright flavour makes it a similar herb to coriander (cilantro) – and it also seems good at making fans and haters. (People sometimes take offence to its fragrance/flavour, and also to the rough texture on the tongue when you use the leaves fresh.)

My thoughts on Growing shiso

I’m twenty years older now, and still gravitate to food markets of all kinds … but I garden too, and year by year my veggie patch gets whackier. I love it! Some of my summer stalwarts are shiso, Thai basil, and baby corn grown in a ring almost touching the clouds. This year we’ve also got our first crop of runner beans (‘seven year’ beans – can’t believe it’s taken me so long), plus apple cucumbers, yellow zucchini, and capsicums en masse.

But oh, the shiso. It’s just as beautiful in the garden as it is at the market. The tiny seeds are difficult to grow – what works for me is finding an Asian grocer that dabbles in a line of seedlings. Sometimes you will find shiso tucked in amongst them, in both red and green varieties. (Green is actually the most common variety around the world, much used in Japanese and Korean food … I’ve personally found you can use red in any recipe that features green, so you can grow the colour you like best.)

Once you get shiso growing, it is clever to leave it in the garden until it dies off in winter, to try and get it to self-seed in spring. In my experience you should leave the dead stalks in the ground a long time, then shake them all over the garden when you finally pull them out. When tiny purple babies start popping up as the weather begins to warm, you might do a dance, cartwheel, or light a celebratory bonfire at having nurtured the conditions in which nature reproduces itself.

Ideas for what to make with shiso

Whether you buy a market bunch of shiso, or decide to grow it in your garden, here are a few ideas for how to eat it:

  • Add a generous handful to a stir-fry towards the end of cooking and cook until just wilted.
  • Include it in Vietnamese pancakes or rice paper rolls.
  • Make it into iced tea. (Steep the leaves in boiling hot water and add a tablespoon of sugar. Leave to cool to lukewarm, then squeeze out the leaves, pressing out all the colour that you can. At this stage you will have a murky brown brew – but add lime or lemon juice to taste and watch magic happen. Refrigerate.)
  • Make a version of pesto using shiso, nuts or seeds or choice, and a little miso.
  • Add it to salads, i.e. noodles – although texturally I think it is best to finely shred the leaves.
  • Dry the leaves and grind to a powder – for onigiri or to make your own shichimi togarashi (Japanese seven spice).
  • Make a Korean-style pickle, a relative of kimchi known as ‘rice stealer’. Oh my, I love this and it keeps indefinitely. You will have to Google it …
  • The main Japanese way of using red shiso is in umeboshi. This is made with a particular variety of plum, picked and also pickled unripe. (I’m being heretical again, but I’ve made this with our backyard cherry plums …)

Vietnamese-style grilled fish skewers with shiso (perilla) leaf wrappers

Vietnamese-style vermicelli salad with fish wrapped in shiso (perilla) leafShiso fish skewers WITH vermicelli salad

This is my spin on a Vietnamese dish that my family loves to order when out for dinner at a local restaurant, or from a street stall at our suburb’s Lunar New Year festival – beef in betel leaves. I’ve found out that shiso leaves work brilliantly as the wrapper (and are much cheaper). This fish version was created to see what it would be like, and my family loved it.

Like a lot of Vietnamese recipes, it looks difficult because of all the components. But you can do plenty in advance, such as make the dressing, which can be stored in the refrigerator almost indefinitely (and leftovers can be used for future salads or rice paper rolls). You can also make the fish mixture in advance and store in the refrigerator, and even roll it up in the shiso leaves. The noodles can also be cooked in advance and left at room temperature until you are ready to serve.

Nuoc cham dressing – with enough for leftovers (see headnote)
1 large garlic clove
½ small red chilli (or to taste)
2 tablespoons fish sauce
3 tablespoons lime or lemon juice
2 heaped tablespoons sugar

Fish mixture
1 lemongrass stalk, pale half only, finely sliced
300 g (about 5 medium) red shallots, roughly chopped
about 500 g boneless white fish fillets (choose something that looks fresh and doesn’t cost too much such as trevally or blue grenadier, and don’t worry if the fillets have skin)
1½ tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon sesame oil (plus extra for grilling)
½ teaspoon white peppercorns, ground
1 teaspoon sugar

3 bunches of shiso
1 large carrot, shredded or julienned, quick-pickled with ¼ teaspoon salt, ¼ teaspoon sugar and 1 teaspoon rice vinegar
rice vermicelli, boiled until tender, rinsed and left to cool to room temperature
lettuce leaves, cut into large bite-sized pieces
a few types of herbs such as coriander (cilantro), Thai basil or mint, leaves picked
roasted peanuts, chopped

To make the dressing, finely chop the garlic and chilli and combine in a small bowl with the remaining ingredients. Stir occasionally; eventually the sugar will dissolve.

Combine the lemongrass and shallots in a food processor and whiz until finely chopped. Scrape onto a plate, but keep the food processor out for the fish.

If your fish fillets have skin, then lay them a fillet at a time on a chopping board. Starting from the tail end, carefully insert the blade of the knife between the skin and the flesh. Beneath the knife, secure the skin to the board with your other hand and slowly move the knife up the fillet, cutting the skin from the flesh. If you don’t remove every skerrick, it’s okay – small remnants of skin won’t ruin the fish mixture.

Chop the skinless fish into rough pieces and place in the food processor. Whiz the mixture, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl a few times, until the fish is finely ground and has come together in a sticky ball. Return the lemongrass and shallots to the processor, along with the remaining fish mixture ingredients. Process until well combined.

Soak some small bamboo skewers in a dish of cold water. Pluck all the large and medium shiso leaves from the stems. You can use some of the mini leaves to serve with the noodles (and if there is more leftover, look to the ideas above!). Rinse the leaves in a colander, then lay one out on the bench with the stem end facing you (it doesn’t matter which side of the leaf you have facing upwards – the purple side of red shiso will darken on the grill anyway). Add a heaped tablespoon of fish mixture onto the bottom third of the leaf and spread it the width of the leaf. Roll up and place the roll on a plate. Continue until you have used all the leaves.

If you still have fish mixture remaining, pat it into a large fish ball and grill it (painted with oil) at the same time as you cook the skewers. This can be used for another meal, i.e. sliced for a salad or rice paper rolls, or crumbled for a larb-style dish.

Preheat the grill of your barbecue over medium heat and thread 3 shiso fish rolls onto each bamboo skewer. Paint one side of the leaves on each skewer with sesame oil as you put them on the hot grill. Cook the skewers for about 4 minutes on the first side before painting the top sides of the leaves with more oil and turning. Cook for another few minutes before removing the skewers to a plate.

To serve, put a handful of noodles in each bowl, plus lettuce leaves and quick-pickled carrot on the side. Add some herbs over the lettuce, and a sprinkling of peanuts over the noodles, and top with a few skewers per person. Put the dressing at the table for people to add themselves (about 1 tablespoon per serve), along with extra lettuce, herbs and skewers.

Serves 4–6

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