The windows are thrown wide open. A thick, endless quilt of clouds rolls by. A strong evening breeze blows through chasing away the heavy humidity. Higurashi cicadas call from every direction, singing the soundtrack to another hot summer in Japan. Another hot summer I didn’t expect to spend here. I thought for sure we’d be in Maine by now. But as the world slowly reopens and travel feels less risky than it did a year ago, borders here are still closed leaving me with the choice to stay in or get shut out. So for now we’ll stay.
As the temperatures rise I find my self less and less interested in long hours the kitchen. Feeling sluggish in the heat, I crave foods that are light and fresh and cooking that is easy and effortless. I crave tall glasses of cold refreshing drinks, green tea in the morning to revive and clarify the mind, and a red shiso tonic in the afternoon to stimulate and hydrate the body.
Great big bundles of red shisho appear in the markets a few weeks after the ume have been harvested. They are provided mainly to stain umeboshi but can also be simmered into the most delightful and refreshing herbaceous summer syrup to be mixed with sparkling or still water, frozen into sorbet, or mixed into afternoon cocktails on a lazy summer Sunday. Green and red shiso is also easy to grow in a home garden, in fact, too easy sometimes. A friend in Maine used to bring us big bundles of shisho that she had to carve out of her garden each summer for fear it would take over. It’s an annual, but if you let a few stalks go to seed you’ll find it popping up here and there again the next year. Green shisho is the preferred culinary variety to use as an edible herb in the kitchen while red shiso is better suited to pickling and preserving or to making into this drink.
The leaves are boiled in water until they release all of their color and the still warm elixir is sweetened with sugar to your liking. The resulting syrup is a dull brick brown but a moment of magic happens when you drizzle in a bit of lemon juice or apple cider vinegar and watch it turn into a vivid and concentrated shade of cranberry pink.
At a time when so many I know are longing to travel, longing to come to Japan, I find myself daydreaming about a life elsewhere. I miss the other place I call home with its vaulted ceiling and soft shadows that traverse the walls over the course of a day. I miss the sound of birch tree leaves rustling and their white trunks glowing outside the kitchen window at dusk. I miss the copper pots, cast iron pans, enameled bakeware, and the tastes of a New England summer that reconnect me to my roots. I miss that luminous light of Maine, great swaths of color painted across the sky and reflected in the water. I miss speaking in my native tongue with friends who volley back the dry humor I toss their way. It’s just a matter of time, I know, and when I get back there it will taste sweeter than ever.
Red Shiso Tonic
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