Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

She sows shiso by the seashore

A little local foodism as Cornucopia goes into its second week



Anyone who knows me or regularly reads this column knows I'm highly allergic to the whole foodie thing. Still, with Cornucopia unfolding at Whistler, I can't help but give at least one small nod to the foodism movement that Ann Barr, Paul Levy and friends unleashed back in the 1980s.

One thing that makes the original impulse bearable is that as Barr, Levy et al codified the pursuit and capture of certain foods and food experiences as status symbols, they maintained an edge of naughty monkey business.

In The Official Foodie Handbook (circa 1984), Barr and Levy included cheeky little items, like the derisive sidebars on The Pepper Bore and The Vinegar Bore — you know the ones, urging you to try the latest purple peppercorn from an obscure valley in Pettapeta or that fantastic kombucha vinegar with a hint of durian dregs.

Then there's the section on foodie casualties, including a detailed schematic on saving a foodie's life with the "punch to the paunch," a.k.a. the Heimlich manoeuvre, as well as answers to embarrassing questions like, does a foodie have to cook? (not necessarily).

I also like that Barr and Levy paid homage not just to gastronomiques but more scientifically minded "Foodies" like Benjamin Thompson, who, in 1800, invented the predecessor to modern ovens.

On that note, here's a quasi-scientific, semi-foodie introduction with a common touch to a terrific herb of Asian provenance that's popular in Japanese and Korean cuisine — one you likely haven't discovered yet and is unusually delicious, both of which are typical foodie cred.

Shiso, according to my favourite down-to-earth food scientist, Harold McGee, is the leaf of Perilla frutescens, a relative of mint native to China and India. Also known as "perilla" or "beefsteak plant," it was taken to Japan in the eight or ninth century where it gained the name "shiso."

According to McGee, its distinctive aroma is due to a terpene called perillaldehyde, which has a fatty, herbaceous, spicy character. Depending on which shiso leaf I munch, I can find hints of lavender, anise, and, sometimes, lemon.

Shiso comes in several different varieties, including red or purple varieties. These contain anthocyanins, which give them their distinctive purplish colour and a mildly astringent sensation. Some have no perillaldehyde; these taste of lemon or dill. Japanese people use shiso leaves and flower heads in salads, and with seafood and grilled meat. Purple shiso is used to colour and flavour the popular pickled plum, umeboshi. Koreans obtain both flavour and cooking oil from perilla seeds.

Even though it's a member of the wide-ranging mint family, shiso is a bit exotic and hard to find, like so many foodie trophies. If you buy it in a store like Fujiya Japanese Foods in Vancouver, it is pricey — another foodie criterion. But it's nothing like, say, a bottle of white truffle oil that can set you back a couple of hundred bucks.

Actually, much of my inspiration to write about this delicious herb is that, even though I'm no great gardener, I've just harvested two shiso plants, one green, one purple, which blossomed into little giants despite, or maybe because of, my benign neglect. This alone tells me here's yet another worthwhile grow-your-own B.C. herb — and, yes, it does bud — that really delivers without much effort.

I don't think I fertilized them even once, but I harvested so much shiso for months that I could share some with the sushi restaurant where I first tasted it, as most Westerners do. This one was Gastown's trendy and very good Sea Monstr Sushi, where they use it in an exquisite squid and sour plum roll — ika ume shiso maki.