What is perilla?
Perilla is an annual herbaceous plant native to India and China in Asia, and grows mostly in Korea, China, Japan, India, and Nepal. Korean perilla plant is called deulggaepul(들깨풀), in which pul means "herb." It is a kind of mint (not sesame) so it is quite as strong of a fragrance as any of the mint family or even stronger. It reseeds itself and the name of the seeds is deulggae(들깨). When the seeds ripen in early October or sometime earlier in the fall, you can either go through each pod to check inside and shake off the individual pod over a big bowl to catch the seeds or when your perilla garden is quite big, first cut the plant stalks, separate them into bunches, stack them vertically, and then shake each bunch over a cloth to knock loose the seeds. Harvesting of the perilla seeds is such a long and laborious task, yet it is mostly done by hand.
In Korean cuisine, Korean perilla seeds are used the same ways the sesame seeds are used - as is, as powder, or as oil. Perilla and sesame were imported into the Korean peninsula during the Unified Silla era (668~935) and they are respectively called deulggae(들깨) and ggae (깨) as if they were related.1 The plant's leaves are called deulggaennip (들깻잎) or simply ggaennip (깻잎), in which the latter does not mean the sesame leaves but the perilla leaves.2
|Korean perilla seeds (deulggae)|
1. The narrow translation of deulggae is “field sesame” (in which deul means “field”) when deulggae (perilla) and ggae (sesame) are of different families. Deulggae can be broadly translated as “wild sesame.” In ancient Korean language, perilla was written as “ㅄ개,” the pronunciation of which was ggae. Then its name was replaced by the latecomer, sesame, so that it was no longer ggae but deulggae. Adding insult to injury, sesame is often called chamggae, which means “true sesame” in Korea.
2. The word, deulggaennip, can be narrowly translated as “field sesame’s leaf" and ggaennip as “sesame’s leaf,” and both can be broadly translated as “wild sesame leaf.” Korean people only use perilla leaves, not sesame leaves, in their cooking. Maybe this is why both deulggaennip and ggaennip identically refer to perilla leaves; for one, perilla leaves were ggaennip in the first place as stated above in footnote 1, and two, there’s no need to worry about confusion because sesame leaves are not used in Korean cooking.
Unlike other perilla leaves grown in such countries as China or Japan, Korean perilla leaves are rounder in shape – a beautiful heart shape – and their edges are serrated as shown above – and are much stronger in flavor. Korean perilla leaves are almost a must-have item on our table year-round. Korean people use it raw (or blanched) for rice wraps, ssambap (쌈밥), or marinate in ganjang (soy sauce) or doenjang (Korean soy bean paste) and store for later use, or make perilla kimchi (or gimchi). The leaves and also the unripe seedpods can be used for tuigim (aka tempura). Especially when you pop just one seedpod tuigim in your mouth, you’ll just fall in love with its nutty taste and crunchy, fun texture.
A Korean perilla leaf also has aromatherapeutic qualities all by itself and provides wonderful anti-inflammatory action. You may want to try this in order to cope with frequent headaches and feeling tired – crush a Korean perilla leaf between your fingers and put it in your nostrils. Traditionally, Korean people have planted the perilla plants along the fence around the garden or in the garden with other plants as natural animal repellent since animals like cats, dogs, goats, rabbits, or squirrels absolutely loathe the fragrance of perilla. However, when its peculiar flavor – pungent and peppery with a lingering nutty aftertaste of perilla seeds – grows on you, then you will soon be eating it raw as these Lithuanian girls do:
Lithuanian girls pick and eat the Korean perilla leaves
planted in their garden
Korean people could only eat the perilla leaves while growing the plants for the seeds until lately, but nowadays, the leaves are available year-round. When choosing a perilla leaf: (1) always remember the greener the front side is, the better; (2) check the back side to make sure it’s purple – the more purple the better; (3) try to find not too small or not too big a leaf; and (4) select not too thin a leaf in case the leaves are to be stored in marinade for long periods of time.
Nutritional Facts & Health Benefits
Whenever Korean moms cannot think of anything for dinner or lunch, Korean perilla leaves, along with lettuce (상추, sangchu), always come to their rescue. They are handy year-round, veeeeeery inexpensive, and appetite stimulating with its unique fragrance. To top it off, they are delicious and full of nutrients, vitamins, and omega-3 fatty acids, specifically alpha-linolenic acid; they also have anti-inflammatory properties and are thought to help preserve and sterilize other foods.
According to The Medical Details of Herbal Plants (본초강목, Bonchogangmok), Chinese books (52 volumes) on traditional herb medicine, Korean perilla leaves (1) help get rid of smells and bad odor, (2) help circulate gi(기, aka qi or chi, life force or energy flow) and strengthen the spleen and stomach – so are proven effective against morning sickness, (3) help soothe phlegmy coughs and make you sweat when you have a cold so that your body stay cool, (4) help increase urination, (5) help soothe bug bites when you apply the patch directly to the bites, and (6) detoxify the fish poisoning.
The Handbook of Herbal Medicines (동의보감, Dongeuibogam, which literally means the Mirror of Eastern Medicine), also states that Korean perilla leaves (1) help eum (aka yin) and yang of your body balanced in continuous harmony, (2) help treat hangover symptoms, (3) help treat coughs, (4) help soothe hwaggi(화기, “fire”-chi, a unique concept in Korea) (For details, click hwabyeong(화병) and han(한)), and (5) help soothe bug bites or blotches when the patch is directly applied to the skin.