The first time I had shiso I was at a sushi bar in San Francisco. At the time it was the best sushi I’d ever had, but it wasn’t just about the fish. Every now and then a new flavor, one I had never tasted before, would fill my mouth with happiness. It was a fresh flavor, almost like mint, but richer, more earthy and, at the same time, ethereal.
I asked the chef what I was tasting and he explained it was a Japanese herb called shiso (also called green perilla). Ever since that day I had been on a mission to find a place to buy it so I could use it at home. Occasionally I’d find shiso at a Japanese market, but always in small quantities and often at steep prices. Not an ideal situation for a shiso fiend.
I’d always wanted to have a more regular supply of shiso, and this year I finally had the opportunity when I started my first garden. To my delight our shiso plant thrived. Or more accurately: exploded.
For the last few weeks I’ve had shiso coming out my ears and have been using it in salads, stir fries and everything else I could think of. It’s been awesome, but I still had barely dented the towering shiso bush that was taking over my garden. I needed to figure out a way to use a huge bunch of it so it wouldn’t go bad. And fast.
Inspiration struck when I was at another of my favorite sushi restaurants last week and we ordered a dish of soba noodles with shiso pesto. It was quite good, though it tasted more Italiany than I would have preferred. Pesto is a fantastic way to preserve fresh herbs, however, so I decided to try my own version that would retain a more traditional Japanese flavor.
I had to toy with the recipe a bit, since I couldn’t find a version online that didn’t rely on either cheese, pine nuts, or both, flavors that I feel lend an Italian essence to pesto that I was trying to avoid. Instead I opted for pistachios and miso paste to give the appropriate texture and umami (meaty-savory) flavor. I also started making it with olive oil, but switched to rice bran oil part way through for a more nutty, mild flavor. I have to admit, it turned out pretty awesome.
I tossed my pesto with some Japanese noodles and served it with some shrimp cooked in ponzu sauce, and topped with a sprinkle of bonito flakes. It was light and delicious, but also very filling.
I realize not everyone has access to these quantities of shiso (this recipe could easily be halved and still make plenty), but I wasn’t able to find anything similar online so figured it was worth sharing. If this is the first time you’ve ever heard of shiso, ask around for it at farmers markets and local produce markets this summer. It’s definitely worth a try.
Japanese-Style Shiso Pesto
makes 15-20 servings
- 4 c. tightly packed shiso leaves
- 1/2 c. raw pistachio nuts
- 2 tbsp miso paste (any type)
- 1 clove garlic, pressed
- 1 lemon (juiced)
- 1/2 c. olive oil
- 1/4 c. rice bran oil
In a food processor add the nuts, shiso, miso paste, garlic, lemon juice and olive oil. Pulse until evenly ground.
Turn the food processor to “on” and let it puree while slowly adding the rice bran oil until smooth. The consistency should be between a sauce and a paste. Miso should make the pesto plenty salty, but you can adjust the salt and acidity (lemon) to your liking if necessary.
If you made far more than you can use in a few days (as I did), you can add the remaining pesto to ice cube trays, drizzle a touch of oil on each, cover with plastic wrap and freeze to preserve individual servings. Enjoy for months!