London Chefs Are Going Crazy Over an Herb That Tastes Like Shoegaze

A Japanese member of the mint family, shiso's flavor is more shoegaze than death rock. The spearmint notes don’t smash themselves across your lips—this is a slow seduction of the tongue. “I use it every day in our sashimi rolls,” says London chef Gohei...
May 27, 2016, 12:00pm

The leaf pattern reminds me of Fat Mike's mohawk and the green makes me think of Tré Cool. I can just picture this little leaf on a BMX, flipping off the coriander as the parsley looks on, horrified.

A member of the mint family, shiso has a fresh spearmint taste and tickly mouthfeel. It's one of the more popular Japanese herbs found in both cooking and cocktail-making, and is often served with sashimi as a way to cleanse the palate.

And yes, it looks familiar. But snap your lips against this little Asian leaf and you know immediately that it's no stinging nettle.

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Because that flavour is more shoegaze than death rock. The spearmint and aniseed and citrus don't smash themselves across your lips like a bass-wielding Paul Simonon. This is no synthetic Wrigley's Airwaves trickery. This is a slow and methodical seduction of the tongue.

And Londoners have got the horn.

Why now? In fear of sounding like a UKIP party political broadcast or an "exotic" porn flick from the 80s, part of shiso's sudden appeal is down to the "Asian invasion" of the capital's restaurant scene.

At the recently opened KOJAWAN in Northwest London, chefs serve Hawaiian stone bass poke with shiso, jalapeno, and sake. In Dalston yakitori restaurant Jidori, the chicken wings come with shiso and grilled lemon, and at Shoryu—owned by Japan Centre's Tak Tokumine—the wagyu beef buns are dished out with daikon, shimeji, and of course, shiso.

And the jagged leaf isn't only knocking basil and co. off from the herb hit chart in Asian kitchens. At Dickie Fitz, the most recent London establishment from the Affinity restaurant group, executive chef Matt Robinson uses it as a garnish for tuna tataki, adding what he describes as a "unique, peppery freshness to the dish."

Yakitori chicken wings with shiso and grilled lemon. Photo courtesy Aaron Tilley.

Modern farming has also played its part in the rise of the shiso. Traditionally a summer ingredient, it is now grown all year-round to meet the demands of the restaurant industry. And Brett Redman, chef and owner of Jidori, says British shiso is some of the best going.

"We use shiso grown in the UK by Westlands [but] most of it is grown in Holland and lacks the depth of flavour I would normally associate with shiso," he says. "We love it for both the intensity of its flavour as well as its versatility [they serve it in a gin-based cocktail called She's So Into You]. A combination of the freshness of mint and the savouriness of basil."

It's this "unpindownable" flavour—as restaurant critic Fay Maschler recently described it—that makes shiso so idiosyncratic. And everyone has their own take on what makes it unique.

The She's So Into You shiso cocktail at Jidori. Photo courtesy Aaron Tilley.

The team at Tokimeite use shiso in their sashimi, nigiri, and tempura moriawase. Executive head chef Daisuke Hayashi says the delicate flavour of shiso "creates a gentle balance with the subtleness of fresh dishes" such as sashimi and tempura and also "has the added benefit of stimulating appetite which increases the satisfaction of the dining experience." Shiso. The super herb.

For others, it's all about the nose.

Ramen Chef Kensuke Yamada of Tsuru Sushi and Tonkotsu mostly uses shiso in summer, "a bit like mint" to bring freshness to salads, sashimi, and to "break through the creaminess" of the chilled tofu dish hiyayakko. He says it's shiso's distinctive scent that gets him going.

"It's the fragrance more than anything," he explains. "The way it hits the top of your palate and olfactory senses."

The Tonkotsu kitchen currently use shiso on and off, but the group's September opening—Anzu in St James' Market—will feature a tempura shiso, which is just about one of the best things I've heard all year. And that's the thing with shiso—it's such a diverse herb.

Tempura moriawase at Tokimeite. Photo courtesy Tokimeite.

Gohei Kishi, Gordon Ramsey's Head of Asian Concepts at Maze and Maze Grill uses shiso—otherwise known as ooba, he informs me—for sushi because the intense cross between basil, fresh mint, and coriander goes really well with raw fish and tempura.

"I use it every day in our sashimi rolls," he says.

But that's just the tip of the shiso mohawk.

Kishi says that although shiso grows most commonly with green leaves, you can also find red leaf shiso which is used for pickling sour plums in Japan. Then there's "hojiso," the stalk of the herb that's peppered with shiso seeds and is mostly used as a garnish or with a salad. Likewise, a more expensive and "prettier" shiso is hanahojiso, which is the upper stems of the stalks with purple flowers "offering a strong flavour" that Kishi saves for special guests or events at the restaurants.

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There's even a non-oil dressing flavoured with shiso and a condiment called yukari which is "dehydrated shiso with salt that give that zingy taste of pickled red shiso," he says.

And that's not all. The Wasabi Company in Dorset make a green and red shiso tea and way back in 2009, Pepsi launched a shiso-flavoured version of the popular pop in Japan.

I take it back. Shiso is not a punk rocker. It's a show off.