After making ume jam last month, I got caught up in what I call “the cycle of gifting.” You see, a gift isn’t just a gift in Japan. Often, there is an unspoken obligation to reciprocate with another “return gift,” usually worth about half the value of the previous one. Depending on the manners of the parties involved, this can develop into a long series of exchanges.
So after I gave Mr. Y two jars of jam made from his ume, he brought me some homegrown plums as a return gift. Unfortunately, I was on vacation that day, so I got some frantic calls from my supervisor wondering when I would be back and where was a good place to leave the plums. In the end it was decided that a bag of immaculately ripe plums was not going to be edible after three days of Japanese summer heat, so I imagine they were passed around the staff room or met some other delicious demise. (I took the call at a rather noisy train station, so I actually thought he said “a plant” not “some plums” so I was really surprised when they told me they’d been eaten).
Feeling guilty for causing stress to my supervisor and Mr. Y over my absence, I made sure to bring them both some dadacha-mame omiyage from my trip to Yamagata. Omiyage is another longstanding gift-giving tradition where you bring your coworkers a small edible treat from wherever you’ve just returned from. This has led to a profusion of mediocre individually-wrapped cakes in pretty boxes from every town in Japan, but there are some good ones out there if you can get some advice from local folks. For example, this dadacha-mame cake was quite tasty.
In return for the omiyage (a gift with so little value it never obliges a return gift), Mr. Y brought me a bottle of his wife’s homemade shiso juice. “It’s very healthy,” he told me. You just mix the concentrated juice with some water and enjoy. The resulting drink is a beautiful ruby pink and tastes refreshing and summery. It’s also a good way to use up the forest of aka-jiso (red shiso) that many people grow to make umeboshi with if there’s a bad ume harvest like this year.
I enjoyed this new taste so I asked for the recipe for the juice. A search online produced a few alternative recipes too. Since aka-jiso grows like a weed here and it’s used in great quantities for making umeboshi, it’s very cheap—a big bunch is typically only 100 yen or so. Following the recipe, I stemmed and washed the leaves and boiled them in 2 liters of water (I had to split the recipe into two pots since even my biggest pot can’t accommodate 2 liters of water and 2 bunches of shiso leaves). The leaves blanched from maroon to green in the water’s heat and the liquid turned a murky purple hue (dried splashes turned a bright violet, but in the pot it wasn’t very appealing). I stirred in a teaspoon of citric acid, and the color instantly brightened to a lovely deep pink. Finally, I was about to add the sugar and citric acid when I took a look at the 1-kilo bag of sugar in my hand. I couldn’t bring myself to use the whole bag, so I quickly reduced the amount of sugar that I’d use by 30%. That still meant that my “healthy drink” had almost the same amount of sugar as my other favorite cold beverage (which has earned me the nickname Coca-Lora).
I bottled up the juice into two 1-liter jars (which are also great for iced tea and mugi-cha, another delicious summertime drink). If you take a look at the top photo you can see my favorite storage jar. I love that it’s Pyrex, so I can fill it up with hot liquids or brew tea right in it and that there’s no handles or hardware to catch nasties in the sink or get rusty. What a great design, and it was only 500 yen. I think everyone could use one of these. The last surprise was that the finished juice was significantly more than two liters, so some of the liquid must have come from the shiso itself.
After we’d finished drinking most of the first batch, I thought I’d try again to make a more healthful version. I mixed up the juice (this time just a half batch to save room in the fridge) and slowly tinkered with the ratio of sugar and citric acid until I was satisfied with the flavor. The final amount was 225 grams of sugar and 1 1/2 teaspoons of citric acid. I’m not sure if it’s really healthier or if I’m just diluting it less when I serve it, but it’s a change that I can feel good about at least.
To serve the shiso juice, you just dilute the concentrate with 1 or 2 parts water. Mixing it with club soda instead makes a refreshing summer sparkler, and the soda somehow gives the drink a more berrylike flavor than water alone.
1 big bunch aka-jiso (red shiso) leaves
1 liter water
225 grams sugar or honey
1 1/2 teaspoons citric acid
Your bunch of shiso should be quite large, about 350 to 500 grams. Remove and discard the large, woody stems (the remaining leaves should weigh at least 200 grams). Put the leaves in a large bowl, bucket, or sink, and wash them thoroughly with cold water. Bring one liter of water to a boil. Put the shiso leaves and water in a large pot and boil them together for about 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the leaves steep in the hot water for at least 10 minutes more (the longer you wait, the more intense the color will be). Stir in the citric acid and sugar. Strain the juice into jars, squeezing the leaves to extract as much of the juice as you can. The juice can be stored in the refrigerator for several months, if it lasts that long.
To serve, mix with water or club soda and drink chilled.