What Is Shiso Pesto?

AlLeaf of the Japanese herb, shiso

Short answer
Shiso pesto is a Japanese-style pesto made using the leaves of the Perilla frutescens plant.

Long answer
At the heart of everything we do here at GO! Pesto is the belief that all cuisines are worthy of their own world class pesto.

We’re never happier than when developing new pestos because there’s an infinite number of ways to approach them. In the case of a Japanese pesto, kombu or nori seaweed would be an obvious starting point, perhaps paired with sesame oil and a hint of wasabi. Alternatively, maybe we could pair edamame beans, tofu, and some bonito flakes for a salty, umami kick.

Somewhere along the line, though, shiso (a herb from the mint family Lamiaceae that is used extensively in Asian cuisine) has become the de facto ingredient for a Japanese-style shiso pesto.

Our hunt for fresh shiso
We're ashamed to admit, being self-confessed food nerds and all, that we spent a fruitless Sunday trying to hunt down a shiso plant from local garden centres. It only occurred to us that evening that herbs, like all plants, have a seemingly endless number of different names, and we should have been searching for a perilla plant, which shiso is more commonly called in the UK.

Shiso leaf for making Japanese pesto

Different types of shiso
Shiso has either green or purple leaves. The purple ones have a strong, bitter flavour and are mainly used to dye the ume fruit when making umeboshi, a kind of pickled plum.

The green leaves generally have a wider variety of uses, especially when used fresh as a garnish for sushi and sashimi. Sometimes referred to as "Japanese basil," it's the obvious choice when making shiso pesto.

Green shiso's flavour
Shiso has a complex, acquired flavour. The best way we can describe it is bright, fresh, and citrusy, with hints of mint, basil, cinnamon, and coriander. It can often have some eucalyptus notes too.

Shiso pesto recipe

Olive oil
Shiso 50g
Chestnuts 20g
Salt 1.5g
Garlic x1 clove
Lemon juice dash

Add all the dry ingredients to a food processor and pulse until you reach your desired consistency. We prefer our pestos to be slightly chunky, but you might prefer yours smooth.

Transfer to a mixing bowl and slowly stream in the olive oil, stirring by hand. You may need a little more or less than 75g, so use your judgement.

Add a dash of lemon juice and serve as you would any other pesto.

Where to buy shiso pesto
A company called Vallebona sells shiso pesto, but get your credit card ready because it costs £26 for an 80g jar. We reckon that makes it the most expensive pesto on earth.

Fun fact
Have you ever wondered why your sushi comes with a pointless little green plastic strip with spiky edges resembling grass? Well, in top-notch Japanese restaurants, shiso is used to separate individual pieces of sushi to avoid flavours blending with each other. It also works alongside ginger as a palate cleanser between mouthfuls. The plastic strip is simply a nod to that tradition.