Spring has slowly emerged from the cold and grey, bringing the nettles, mushrooms, and the talk of wild ramps. The alleyways, once narrow corridors of icy brick, have come to life with wildflowers and weeds of every sort. Next will be the old Korean women, noses to the ground, picking through the meadows by the lake for dandelion greens. The air carries with it a verdant quality, the sweet smell of fleeting flowers and the earthiness of warm rain, and as the city literally becomes alive once again, we throw open our windows to catch every little breath. For me, these are the days of shiso, the ubiquitous Japanese herb that combines the floral qualities of mint with the light peppery note of arugula for a taste that is indescribable but quintessentially fresh and of the season.
Growing up we had it in the garden, ready to serve as a garnish for hiyayakko and somen, a Japanese culinary afterthought. It took a trip to Basta Pasta, an Italian-Japanese restaurant in New York, to make me realize shiso’s wider potential. At the top of the Primi Piatti list is a shiso and tobiko spaghetti that captures the full essence of summer, combining airy slices of the fragrant herb with a taste of the ocean in the sweet and salty fish roe. Since that revelation, I’ve added shiso by the handful to salads, pizzas, sandwiches, and even cocktails, as a way of refreshing the palate on those first perfect, warm days of the year.
Shiso Tobiko Spaghetti
makes 2 large portions
8 oz. dry spaghetti
1/3 cup tobiko (we used squid ink tobiko but there are many varieties available)
1 handful of shiso, chiffonade
4 tbsp butter
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 oz. clam juice
2 oz. sake
salt, to taste
Put a large pot of salted water on to boil and prepare pasta according to package instructions. In the meantime, melt the butter over medium low heat in a skillet or sauce pan and add the chopped garlic, cooking just until fragrant. Add clam juice and sake and bring to a boil, and continue to simmer until the sauce has reduced a bit, to about 1/3 cup of sauce, or what looks appropriate to coat the pasta. When the pasta is ready, quickly drain it and add it to the sauce, tossing well to coat it. Wait for it to cool for just a moment, then add the tobiko and salt, to taste, and toss well to mix. Plate the pasta and top with the shredded shiso.
Shiso is a available at many Asian grocers, often labeled as perilla. The Koreans have a similar, but distinct cultivar deulggae translated as “sesame leaf.” For the classic Japanese taste, look for delicate, fully green leaves. Seeds for shiso are available at many home garden stores or online, and are best potted, as they are quite invasive.