Photos by 
Jessicarobyn Keyser
Jessicarobyn Keyser

A Perilla Sauce That Finally Made Me Understand Herbs

by 
Anja Jerković
October 21, 2021

Perilla, otherwise known as beefsteak plant, shiso, or Chinese basil, is, for me, the herb that almost got away. Or rather, it was my gateway herb, the one that took me and my pre-existing salt and pepper game aside and said, “psst, you can do better.” I didn’t know then what one mighty leaf could do to the overall taste of a dish, how one can fool friends and parents into thinking you’ve graduated from simple pasta dinners just by a little sprinkle of the stuff. I was more innocent then, feeling fancy with a few bay leaves and dash of cumin here and there. 

I was introduced to perilla through taste, not through the internet. She was a mystery to me, with her spiky edges, deep green front and royal purple backside. Anyone else I mentioned perilla to looked at me like I was becoming a straight-up chef, which I slightly felt like now that I had such a refined knowledge of herbs. Well, one herb. 

It was by chance that its aromatic greenness came into my world. My partner, whom I’d met just before quarantine life hit, was visiting Bosnia and Hercegovina, the country I’d been living in, for the winter months. He would fill my ears with sweet stories about his garden back in Hungary, where he grew almost everything he consumed somewhere in a small village towards the northern part of the country. “When borders open,” he’d say, “we should spend the spring there. Open the beds. Live off the land.” For him it was life, for me it was an opportunity to inhabit the role of one of those pie-baking women on homesteading blogs. I was in.

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Borders did eventually open, and we made it to the garden — or rather, the green place where perilla lives. Because once I was introduced to it, that’s where my focus always led me, and I soon developed a sauce that let me add perilla to everything. The taste, the taste! Sweet, spicy, aromatic creaminess of my dreams. Right then and there I thought, “Anja, put a ring on it.” But then I realized it was a sauce, and one cannot marry a sauce, no matter how much one desires the simplicity of that love affair. So fulfilling, so true. 

We spent the season in Hungary and as you might have already imagined, I was head perilla picker. Since the last season provided enough perilla seeds for the following one, they popped up effortlessly all around the garden. I’d look in amazement while my partner reminded me to be patient until late summer, when they’d be at their best. “Let the little guys be,” he’d reiterate. It was a test, but I passed. Once the leaves were ready, I was drying them, storing them, and sharing them amongst friends. Over summer, I’d become a perilla connoisseur and by God, with a little openness, they all could be, too. 

Gateway Perilla Sauce

Prep Time: 10 Mins
 | 
 | 
Serves 2

Ingredients

3 cups perilla/shiso leaves

1-2 cloves of garlic 

1-2 fresh or dried chilis (the spiciness is up to you)

1 tbsp honey

1/3 cup olive oil 

Juice of 1 lemon OR ¼ cup red wine vinegar

Dash of salt & pepper

Prep Time: 10 Mins
 | 
 | 
Serves 2

Ingredients

3 cups perilla/shiso leaves

1-2 cloves of garlic 

1-2 fresh or dried chilis (the spiciness is up to you)

1 tbsp honey

1/3 cup olive oil 

Juice of 1 lemon OR ¼ cup red wine vinegar

Dash of salt & pepper

Ingredients

3 cups perilla/shiso leaves

1-2 cloves of garlic 

1-2 fresh or dried chilis (the spiciness is up to you)

1 tbsp honey

1/3 cup olive oil 

Juice of 1 lemon OR ¼ cup red wine vinegar

Dash of salt & pepper

Directions

1. Place perilla leaves in a mortar if possible. (For those lacking a mortar and pestle, simply finely chop ingredients as minuscule as possible.) (Another option is just putting all the ingredients in a food processor and processing to your preferred texture.)

2. Mortar leaves until they develop into a fine paste. If your arm gets tired and you’re thinking, just let me eat, stop there. I’m sure it’s fine.\Add in garlic clove(s) and chili(s) and mash together with pestle.

3. Add in garlic clove(s) and chili(s) and mash together with pestle.

4. In a separate bowl, combine olive oil, honey, and salt and pepper. Mix until it forms a nice, cohesive mixture. 

5. Add perilla, chili, and garlic paste to the oil and honey mixture. Taste for adjustions such as more spice, garlic, or honey. Everything is up to your taste buds! 

6. Place on rice, pasta, or slather on bread as a dreamy spread on sandwiches or as is. 

About the Author

Anja Jerković

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