Tantaka and Red Shiso

In the mountains of Japan there grows a red-leaved plant whose aromatic and bitter leaves have flavoured the country's cuisine for thousands of years. In the third post of this sister Dark Kitchen series running alongside our current spring issue, Daniela Kato forages for shiso's deep time and folktale roots, and discovers its regenerative powers for both body and soul within a rigid agrarian culture.
is a writer, maker and storyteller based in Japan with an academic background in the environmental humanities and training in ecotherapy. In 2021 she moved to a small village in Yamanashi, where she is currently focusing on creative projects of community revitalisation that weave together ecotherapy practice, local folklore and landscape, crafts and foraging.
Red shiso, Perilla frutescens var. crispa. I gently squeeze their iridescent ruffled leaves between my hands and let the south-easterly wind waft the earthy fragrance through the garden. It feels beyond refreshing and revitalising, now that the rainy season has drawn to a close and the steamy Japanese summer has arrived.

It also reminds me, daily, that slow listening and grounded observation – rather than quick fixing through concentrated effort – might get us closer to how a place wishes to be loved.

Two years ago, when I moved to this terminally depopulated corner of northern Yamanashi with my partner, neighbours and bureaucrats told us that the place had long become a dumping ground of all manner of unwanted things – old appliances, discarded pesticide packages, broken bottles, sick and pregnant cats – at the far edge of the wet-rice farming village. The prospects of growing anything edible here looked grim.

Arechi, the Japanese word for agricultural wasteland, was written on the property’s map we received from the town hall, as though sealing a fate.

The village lies at the confluence of some of the region’s fiercest wind-ways. North-westerly ice-cold gales blow from the Sea of Japan, descending through the southern foot of Mt. Yatsugatake and across the Kofu Basin in the winter months; in the warmer months, the land is visited upon by a milder though still robust and persistent south-easterly wind.

Golden rice fields in late autumn: the satoyama landscape at its most idealised, in Yamanashi Prefecture (photo: Daniela Kato)

In the growing absence of caring human hands to maintain the surrounding windbreak forests, these aeolian visitations have exposed tree roots, thinned out the ground cover and isolated most plants, preventing the establishment of synergic communities. Yet, while a couple of permaculture design courses we took helped us articulate these issues, their managerial solutionism failed to infuse us with any spirited ideas for healing and abundance.

Instead, we decided to lend the depleted earth just a little helping hand by seeding some clover and vetch – and then watch and wait. 

We decided to lend the depleted earth just a little helping hand by seeding some clover and vetch – and then watch and wait.

In the following summer, what revealed itself, with fiery self-sown generosity, was shiso. First, there came green shiso (ao-jiso), with its large frilly leaves and mild minty taste. And then, as the ground heated up in mid July, something smaller, less profuse but more astringent and bitter erupted in their midst: red shiso (aka-jiso).

In culinary terms, there appears to be little left to discover about shiso. A wild and domesticated member of the mint family, it has long been one of the most commonly used herbs in Japanese cooking. The versatile green shiso leaves make delicate sushi and sashimi garnishes, wrappers and dividers, as well as crunchy, fragrant tempura. Due to its astringency and bitterness, red shiso requires salting, blanching and fermenting, thus lending itself to fewer uses in popular taste. Sour umeboshi pickled plums and the tangy yukari rice seasoning, made of dried leaves and salt, add a nostalgic accent to any meal, though they seem to appeal less and less to younger, sweet-toothed generations. Among these, the all-time summer favourite remains the sugar-packed shiso juice, rendered a vivid red by the addition of citric acid or vinegar. 

Culitivated red shiso (Perilla_frutescens_var.crispa)

But as I sat steadily with shiso in the garden, intimations of forgotten histories and gathering practices woven into myth and folktale started whispering in my ear. I opened myself to red shiso’s invitations – and followed the threads taking me into the nearby ruins.

 

Umenoki is a tiny Middle Jomon (c. 3,500 – 2,500BC) settlement site in the village where I live. Over the past decade, the remains of dozens of dwellings have been excavated, suggesting that the settlement lasted for at least 500 years. The dwellings form a circular layout, with a central plaza spectacularly overlooking Mt. Yatsugatake to the North, the Minami Alps to the West, Mt. Fuji to the South, and the less imposing Mt. Kayagatake to the East. 

Supported by the material findings of paleobotanists, archaeologists now believe this was once the locus of a vibrant, peaceful and adaptable pre-agrarian polyculture comprising a variety of hunting, fishing, forest gardening – mostly oaks and nut trees – and, no less important, gathering practices around self-sown plants, including perilla shiso and perilla egoma (an oil-yielding variety, with firmer and rounder leaves).

 

When I began walking and gathering edible herbs and flowers around this rugged, windswept landscape on a regular basis, I was awestruck by the formidable degree of social creativity it must have taken to secure livelihoods around such practices in those days.

Gathering leaves (sansai) along satoyama’s agrarian seams: (photo: Daniela Kato)

This morning, I arrive early at the site only to find a municipal worker mowing the grass vigorously with a potent garden tractor. Behind him, amidst thick stalks of mature mugwort and other wild grasses, there lie on the ground piles and piles of decapitated red clover flowers, still glistening with dew. With the man’s permission, I start filling my foraging basket and he stops the engine to strike up a conversation. He wants to know what I need the flowers for. ‘To make tea to rebalance my hormones,’ I explain, though omitting the details of menopausal hot flashes and mood swings, lest he feels embarrassed. 

The conversation segues into Jomon livelihoods – foraging, farming and water management; the difficult balance of labour and leisure, of joie de vivre and life expectancy – and soon I detect in the man’s self-assured manner the proverbial undercurrent of nostalgia that invariably suffuses such exchanges in struggling rural Japan these days. Yes, those were no doubt admirable times of peace and harmony but at some point in its history the nation chose, irreversibly, to give primacy to the wet-rice cultivation and its rigid social structures, myths and rituals. There’s no way back, he sighs; we’re now trapped in the aftermath of its enslaving arrangements. And this landlocked mountainous country makes the choice feel all the more suffocating.

At some point in its history the nation chose, irreversibly, to give primacy to the wet-rice cultivation and its rigid social structures, myths and rituals

The man’s lament reminds me of the late historian Yoshihiko Amino. His whole work single-handedly pursued the hypothesis that Japanese history, at its most decisive moments, took the shape of a conflict between two worldviews: the agrarian fundamentalism of the warlords and a more unruly seafaring culture of pirates and social misfits. With the victory of the former in a great bloodletting, a whole world of more fluid possibilities was forever foreclosed.

Something in me deeply resists the bleak closure of this ‘big history’ narrative, as I descend a narrow serpentine path leading to a dense forest of konara oaks and horse chestnut tochi trees just behind the settlement. Soon I find myself in a moss-covered clearing and hear the faint gurgling of a nearby stream. Two fire pits at the centre of the clearing suggest this was likely the place where the bitter substances of acorns, chestnuts and red shiso were removed through a laborious process of washings, soakings, rinsings, drying and decoction. 

I descend further towards the water and, all of a sudden, I see an iridescent tapestry of purple leaves glistening under the sunbeams that filter through the canopy. I sit with shiso, squeeze a couple of leaves between my fingers and listen. When the buzzing of the cicadas subsides for a moment, I hear something leaping out of the water. Could this be Tantaka, the starry flounder of the Indigenous Ainu sea folktale?

 

The story goes that one day a violent wind brings the tide to pile up on the shore. The water becomes murky and utterly unbreathable for the fish travelling on the tidal flood. Tantaka, dweller of the muddy sea bottom and lover of surf and swell, remains unruffled; but she does worry about her companions’ atrocious suffering and wants to help. For a while, she swims as close as she can to the surface and finds herself at the mouth of a river. There, an old sea turtle approaches and tells her, pointing to a misty blue mountain in the distance: ‘At the foot of that mountain, you’ll find a purple herb that heals all pains. You’re the only one among us who can breathe in fresh water, so will you please go and fetch some leaves?’

Tantaka musters all her strength and swims upstream, non-stop, leaping over rapids and waterfalls. When she reaches the foot of the mountain, a refreshing, earthy fragrance wafting through the dappled light of the forest canopy mysteriously lifts her fatigue at once. Yet, Tantaka can’t climb to the shore to gather the purple leaves. As she’s about to despair, all manner of animals – birds, foxes, squirrels, deer – approach the shore to enquire and Tantaka tells them of her troubles. Moved by pity, the animals gather the leaves and drop them into the water. Tantaka gently catches the shiso leaves and rushes back to the sea. Her companions recover – balance and health are restored.

 

Back home, I place the red clover flowers on the kitchen counter and ask them to wait; they will be gently washed and dried in the evening. For now, I am going to sit with Tantaka and shiso’s story. I am going to pick some fresh leaves from the garden and make, with these hands, something slow and subtly flavoured. Something weaving back together the land, the river, the sea.

Green and red shiso take the centre in  a Japanese meal (photo: Daniela Kato)

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Pickled Red Shiso

Ingredients:

50g red shiso (perilla) leaves 

10g salt (20% of the weight of shiso)

Water

For salted vinegar solution:

100cc vinegar

5g salt (5% of the weight of vinegar)

Wash the shiso leaves and dry. In a bowl, gently sprinkle salt over each leaf, arranging them in layers. Add just enough water to macerate the leaves. Cover them with wrap and place a suitably sized weight on top. Store in the refrigerator for two days. In a storage bag, prepare the salted vinegar solution. Remove the leaves from the refrigerator and strain. To make sure all astringency is removed, squeeze each leaf gently between your hands. Add the leaves to the salted vinegar solution, sealing the storage bag tightly, and refrigerate overnight. Keeps for four to six weeks.

The pickled leaves can be chopped and sprinkled on vegetables or boiled rice; they also make excellent wrappers for nigiri rice balls.

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 23 – Dark Kitchen

The Spring issue 2023 is set around our Dark Kitchen table where writers, artists and cooks explore food culture in a time of unravelling

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