The pungent flavor of perilla (Perilla frutescens) is an herb enjoyed all across Asia. It is described as having elements of cinnamon and anise in the flavor. Fresh leaves or seeds are used to flavor sushi, bean curd, and tempura. In the kitchen, perilla can be used as a seasoning for Asian soups, spring rolls, and fish dishes. The leaves are also pickled as a condiment. Dried perilla leaves are used in medicinal decoctions for colds, flu, allergic reactions, and nausea.
The appearance of this tender annual reminds many herb gardeners of opal basil � no surprise as they are members of the same botanical family. Its growth habits are similar but the leaves have a distinctive serrated edge that set them off. Perilla grows to three feet in ideal conditions. The small white flowers appear in summer and attract butterflies.
Perilla is an aggressive, self-sowing plant. Unless you remove spent flower heads promptly, you can expect young plants to sprout up each spring in unexpected places in your garden beds. In fact, perilla has escaped cultivation and naturalized throughout the eastern United States and up into Ontario, Canada. This herb�s geographic spread gives you an idea of how adaptable perilla can be.
One of the oddest things about this plant is its alternate name of beefsteak plant. In its native region, beefsteak is certainly not commonly consumed. Even in the US I could not find evidence of it being used to flavor beef. My best guess is that this name refers to the fact that perilla is poisonous to cattle. The USDA credits the spread of perilla to the fact that cattle (and presumably other grazers) avoid eating this herb when they find it in pastures.