A dozen Japanese herbs and vegetables to grow

If you are planning a vegetable garden, or even a few pots on your windowsill, and want to introduce some Japanese flavors, here’s a list of some herbs and vegetables to consider growing, in order of importance and ease of growing in a temperate climate. (That’s one with real winters…at least, before global warming.) The ones marked with an *asterisk can be grown in pots. A couple of my favorite seed sources are listed at the bottom.

1. Shiso or perilla

If you can only grow one Japanese vegetable or herb, it should be shiso, or perilla (perilla fructescens). I’ve also seen it labeled “beefsteak plant”, for what reason I know not. Shiso is used at all stages of growth. The seedlings are clipped and used as mejiso, as a fragrant garnish. The fully grown leaves, called oh-ba (big leaves), are used whole or shredded, as wrappings or garnish, as well as in pickles. And the flower buds, called hojiso, are salted and pickled. Onigiri wrapped in salted green shisos leaves are to die for.

The green shiso is the most useful one – the red shiso is usually just used for making umeboshi (pickled plums), and for hojiso. If you have the space growing both is great, but you’ll need more green than red.

Since shiso leaves bruise rather easily, they are pretty expensive even if you can buy them. So, they are really worth growing yourself.

If you are lucky, shiso will self-seed itself. They did for me, but someone else mistook them for stinging nettles and pulled them all up! So, I’m sewing some anew this year.

You might find this in the ornamental seeds section,since the leaves are very attractive.

In terms of growing habits and conditions, it’s quite similar to basil, so if you can grow basil you can probably grow shiso successfully. To keep the plants going keep plucking off any new buds until the weather turns cool, then let them form buds which you can cut off and preserve in salt. The only problem with shiso is that the leaves can get chewed up or get little holes drilled into them by various insects. Otherwise they are quite problem free. They do require lots of sun.

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