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Japanese herbs: easy to use, easy to grow.

Japanese herbs: easy to use, easy to grow

Botanically speaking, Japanese herbshave some familiar cousins: parsley, mint, cabbage, radish, and chrysanthemum. But in terms of flavor, the six herbs we introduce here may surprise you. Anise, lemon, horseradish, and celery, in varying combinations, are some of the tastes you'll experience. All six herbs have a mild-to-robust spiciness that adds character to dishes they're used in--traditional Japanese foods or Western favorites--with-a-twist, like those in the photographs above (recipes for those dishes and others using these herbs start on page 112).

Japanese herbs are now grown in Californiaand sold in Oriental markets in the West. And you can easily grow your own (see page 64).

How to buy and use Japanese herbs

Some of these herbs can be cooked, likemustard greens. But most are best raw or added to hot food at the last minute--to preserve their fresh, often volatile flavors. Here, we discuss them in terms of looks, selection, and traditional uses.

Oriental markets usually sell them bytheir Japanese names, but you may see English names, too (given here in parentheses).

Green and purple shiso (beefsteak)

Looks. Green or purple leaves are flat,broad, and slightly fuzzy; they have jagged edges.

Selection. Choose fresh-looking leaves;limp ones can't be perked up. Shiso wilts with excessive moisture and browns with age. Green shiso is often sold by the leaf, at 12 to 15 cents apiece. You'll find purple shiso in summer, in only a few markets, for 79 cents to $1 per bunch.

Uses. Serve raw, or add to hot foods at thelast minute. With too much heat, shiso gets stringy. Purple shiso also bleeds with heat. The Japanese use green shiso in sushi, soup, salad, on sashimi, and alongside tempura. Purple is oftenest used in pickling, for its bright color. It tastes more fruity and "green' than green shiso and has less of a citrus flavor.

Mitsuba (trefoil)

Looks. Long, white stalks are topped withflat leaves in clusters of three. These leaves are pale to bright green and small to fairly full, depending on the variety.

Selection. Avoid limp bunches. Choosecrisp ones with strong stems and tender leaves. Older leaves start to yellow. A 2-ounce bunch costs 80 cents to $1.40.

Uses. Serve leaves and stalks raw or brieflywilted (with longer heating, mitsuba may get stringy). Traditional Japanese uses are in salads, savory custards, soups, one-pot dishes, tempura, sushi, and vinegared vegetables.

Shungiku (edible chrysanthemum)

Shungiku's perfume is like that of ornamentalchrysanthemum, but it can be eaten, while the ornamental cannot.

Looks. It's dark green and looks similar toornamental chrysanthemum, but leaves are fuller and more deeply lobed.

Selection. Look for sturdy stalks withsmall, tender leaves. Plants wilt and yellow with age. An 8-ounce bunch costs 65 to 90 cents.

Uses. Serve raw or barely wilted. TheJapanese use it cooked: blanched and chilled in salads, or hot, in tempura, soups, and one-pot dishes--and as a cooked vegetable. If heated too intensely, though, leaves develop a bitter taste.

Kaiware daikon (daikon sprouts)

Looks. Each thin, white stalk has two tinygreen, heart-shaped seed leaves on top.

Selection. Buy packages with crisplookingsprouts. Leaves darken and become slippery with age and excessive moisture. Prices range from 75 cents to $1.15 for a 2- to 3-ounce package.

Uses. Serve raw, or add to hot foods at thelast minute (overcooked, it gets stringy). Typical Japanese uses are in sushi, soup, and salads, and on sashimi and tofu.

Mibuna (no English name)

Looks. Leaves are long, slender, and lightgreen, with smooth edges.

Selection. We've never seen it in a market.In the garden, pick crisp green leaves.

Uses. Serve raw or briefly cooked. In Japan,mibuna is pickled or used in soups.

Don't be discouraged if you can't findfresh Japanese herbs in a market. Seeds are readily available (see page 156), and plants are as easy to grow as their cabbage, mint, parsley, and radish relatives.

All but daikon can be seeded directly inthe ground or started in flats and transplanted. They're good container plants. Shiso and shungiku reseed themselves readily; growing these in containers controls their spread.

Japanese cooks harvest these herbs whenplants are young and the leaves tender. Start picking as soon as plants have enough leaves to spare. Even when plants are more mature, you can get tender leaves by harvesting from the newest growth.

When to plant in your area

Some of these herbs are warm-seasonplants. Others do best in cool, mild temperatures. Daikon sprouts can be grown year-round, indoors or out, depending on where you live.

Grow mibuna, mitsuba, and shungiku atthe same time you would normally grow cabbage, carrots, and radishes. In frostfree areas like Southern California, you can grow them outdoors from fall through late spring, avoiding only hottest midsummer weather.

In coastal northern California, Oregon,and Washington, where summers are mild but frosts are possible in winter, grow these plants spring through fall. In desert and hot inland areas, plant in fall and early spring. In intermountain regions, plant in late spring.

Plant in full sun. If your area gets springhot spells, give plants afternoon shade.

Shiso is a warm-seasom plant. Sow afterthe last chance of frost in spring. In areas with long growing seasons, sow through September (in the desert, avoid planting May through July).

Seed-packet instructions may be in Japanese,so here are some tips on cultivation. All the herbs need regular watering and light feedings with a high-nitrogen fertilizer (except daikon).

Daikon sprouts. Grow these all year, indoorsor out. For long, sturdy sprouts, grow them as shown above. They're ready to harvest in about 7 days in summer, up to 15 days in cool weather. In summer, sprouts need afternoon or full shade. In winter, grow in full sun.

You can also use a sprout planter like theone pictured on page 156. Premoisten the inner screen and fill the container with water so it just touches the screen. Sprinkle seeds onto the screen and set in a dark place. Add water, when necessary, so it always touches the screen; change water when it becomes cloudy.

Before harvesting sprouts, set planter inindirect light to green them up.

Mibuna. A member of the cabbage family,this grows very quickly from seed. Seeds germinate in about three days; harvest leaves in three to five weeks.

Sow seeds 1/4 inch deep and 3 to 4 inchesapart; thin to 1 to 1 1/2 feet apart. Harvest leaves when young and tender. As plants mature, leaves become tough; pull up old ones and replant.

Mitsuba. Mitsuba is as easy to grow as itsrelatives, carrots and parsley. If you're planting in the ground, soil should be well drained. Scatter seeds and cover with 1/4 inch of soil; seeds take at least a week to germinate. Thin plants to about 3 inches. Harvest leaves in 7 to 10 weeks.

Shiso. A relative of mint, shiso is a warmweatherannual that tolerates heat but needs deep watering. Give plants plenty of room if you want them to reach full size: they grow up to 3 feet tall. Sow seeds 1/4 inch deep and 3 inches apart; thin to 6 to 12 inches apart. Seeds germinate in about three weeks. To encourage branching, pinch new growth. Harvest leaves after six to seven weeks.

Shungiku. This plant will develop decorativeflowers, but leaves should be harvested before they form, so foliage is tender. Several varieties are available--the one in our photograph, with deeply serrated leaves; a moderately serrated type; and one that is thick leafed and smooth. Plants bolt prematurely in hot weather.

Sow seeds 1/4 inch deep and thin to 5 to 6inches apart. Harvest the entire plant when it's 4 to 5 inches tall--or allow it to grow to 4 feet tall and harvest tender young leaves and side shoots.

Photo: Green shiso tasteslike mint, citrus, and licorice; nest it under oysters on the half-shell

Photo: Mitsuba's flavor isbetween parsley and celery. Try some in clear Japanese-style soup

Photo: Shungiku's robust "green'flavor works well with prawns and bacon in wilted-herb entree

Photo: Kaiware daikon tastesslightly hot, like radishes. Put sprouts in creamy sauce for prime rib; top with more

Photo: Shiso comes in two colors. Green shiso,above, grows all season in greenhouse. Purple variety, shown at left in Tessie Dong's Los Angeles garden, reseeds itself

Photo: 1. Partially fill container withpotting mix. Then scatter seeds over moistened soil, cover with 1/4 inch of soil, and water lightly.

Photo: 2. To make sprouts grow long, coverthem up to their seed leaves with soil every few days (depending on how fast they grow)

Photo: 3. Harvest sprouts when at least 3inches long by grabbing a few stems right below the seed leaves and pulling gently; rinse and dry

Photo: Young, tender leaves of mibunaare ready to harvest a month after planting. Serrated-leafed shungiku grows in foreground
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Date:Aug 1, 1987
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