Takenoko. It conjures a wide variety of visions. If you’re a Western chef, you’ll probably
envision the newer generation of renewable cutting boards that are easy on the knife blade like
traditional wooden chopping blocks but also inhibit bacterial growth via the natural antiseptic
properties of bamboo or you might see renewable disposable flatware and dinnerware (I
personally would wash and reuse these) that might look trendy with your latest Asian inspired
dish. An Eastern chef might envision perfectly grilled slices of young shoots topped with a
touch of teriyaki sauce and shaved bonito flakes or cubes of young shoots simmered with other
root vegetables and chicken or pork for the perfect nimono course like oden or nishime. The
spiritually inclined might envision stalks of green bamboo decoratively arranged with twigs of
matsu and sakura (or at least plastic sakura twigs) for the perfect kadomatsu to ring in the New
Year. And if you’re a panda, you simply will see food.
Is it a Tree, Grass or Weed?
From the Poaceae family and the Bambuceae tribe of perennial
evergreens, bamboo is the fastest growing… grass in the world.
No, make that the fastest growing plant in the world. Growing
up to 24 inches per day in ideal conditions, it’s no wonder that
bamboo is a renewable resource that should be relied upon in
this day of ecological diminishing returns. And that’s not simply for cutting boards and
dinnerware. Young bamboo shoots make tasty, low calorie meals
and bamboo fibers also produce soft-as-silk rayon fibers (I do
have a tee made with bamboo rayon and it’s like washable
Unfortunately, bamboo does have this nasty habit of flowering
every 60 to 100 years – which decimates total bamboo forests
for years. For humans it simply means moving on to a new
bamboo patch for cultivation, for pandas it means the end of
the road. One theory holds that this simultaneous flowering
and death of the plant ensures reproduction of the species and
causes predators to die (or move on) while forests lay fallow. I’m a firm believer of Darwinian
evolution and natural selection but decimating your own population (and playing dead) until
your predators also meet their demise then gloriously re-arising amounts to waiting for
JaMarcus to re-arise to be the QB of the future…
Bamboo doesn’t provide a whole lot of nutrition to your diet since it’s mainly water with a
touch of carbohydrates, a touch of protein and a touch of fiber. It does contain a couple of the
B vitamins but unless you consume bamboo like a panda, they’ll only be a fraction of your
daily requirements. What bamboo does provide is culinary aesthetics – namely a pleasing
crunch to balance softer ingredients in the dish like tofu or simmered vegetables. And in the
case of real fresh bamboo shoots, a nice contrasting subtle bitterness to the dish.
The Great Bamboo Harvest
Unless you live in the tropics or were raised in the remote panda lands in China (though
bamboo can also be found in the Mid Atlantic States), your main exposure to bamboo usually
is via the canned product from the Asian section of the supermarket. Some Asian markets also
carry “fresh” bamboo shoots packed with water in hermetically sealed bags. I say “fresh” because
these are usually shipped from Japan or China and while their texture and flavor are leagues
above the canned variety, they also are leagues apart from freshly harvested bamboo shoots.
Many moons ago in a bamboo forest far, far away, I had the experience to harvest and process
fresh bamboo shoots. Because of the extreme work involved in bamboo harvesting and
processing, you’ll see that my personal experience probably contributes to my penchant to
proclaim that fresh bamboo is by far the best bamboo product, period. End of story. Maybe it
also has to do with the work involved in any harvest usually is directly correlated to the
enjoyment of the final product.
The day started very early in Wailuku, Maui with my Uncle Ogi and Uncle Edward. Since the
drive is well over an hour just to the outskirts of the Hana rainforest, we departed just before
sunrise (when traveling the only road to Hana, it’s best to beat the 100s of tourists who will
inevitably make the same trek later in the morning). Then once reaching our destination about
1/3 the way to Hana, we donned the requisite bamboo harvesting garb – boots, jeans, long
sleeve shirts, gloves, safety goggles and headwear. Why the full dress regalia just for bamboo?
Bamboo leaves actually have very sharp edges that can inflict paper-like cuts as you brush by
the plant. They are also covered with fine hairs that get into your pores and cause intense
itching. Of course full body protection comes at a price – try harvesting anything in 90% plus
humidity, it is a rainforest after all. Add uneven slopes, mosquitoes and muddy terrain and it
almost makes me want to simply purchase the canned variety. The harvest itself is very simple.
Look for bamboo shoots protruding from the surface up to 30 inches or so. Grab the top and
bend – where it snaps is where it’s tender enough to consume (like asparagus). If it doesn’t
break just leave it since it’s too tough to eat.
So after harvesting shoots for several hours (or until you fill your burlap sack) and losing several
pounds of perspiration in the process, we headed back home for bamboo processing. What? Can’
t you just bag the shoots and refrigerate? Nope. Uncooked shoots have a very short lifespan of
edibility. So after a hot shower and soak in Uncle’s furo tub (the furo helps to release those
bamboo hairs in your pores), we now have to peel, cut and trim the shoots. After slicing
lengthwise and a quick boil in salted water, the bamboo shoots can now be stored in fresh water
and refrigerated. Of course the expiration time clock is still ticking. Until the shoots are cooked
the water needs to be changed on a daily basis and once you see fine bubbles coalescing on the
shoots, that means the shoots are beginning to sour… which happens in a couple of days. After
a harvesting trek like this, I don’t plan on letting ANY of the shoots to sour – I’ll eat bamboo
morning, noon and night if I have to!
But seriously, fresh bamboo shoots do retain a crunch that you can’t find in canned bamboo
shoots and they also have a pleasant bitterness not found in canned or “fresh” shoots. While not
as bitter as bittermelon, the bitterness helps balance other rich, salty or sweet elements in the
dish. Therefore I find that they pair perfectly with pork whether it’s ground, sliced or braised
and contrast to salty elements whether it’s shoyu or miso. Try this stir fry dish though it won’t
be the same if all you can find is canned bamboo shoots. If you can find “fresh” shoots you’ll
see that they contribute quite a lot to a simple pork stir fry.
Bamboo Shoots with Pork
1 lb lean ground pork
2 tbsp canola oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
Fresh bamboo shoots, peeled and sliced
3 tbsp shoyu
2 tsp sugar
2 tbsp Shaoxing wine, sake or Sherry
1 “C” cell battery size piece of fresh ginger, peeled & minced
½ tsp sesame oil
Mix shoyu, sugar and Shaoxing wine to dissolve sugar and set aside.
Heat oil in large pan over high heat. Add garlic and sauté until fragrant. Add pork mixture. Stir
fry until no longer pink. Add the bamboo shoots and cook until bamboo shoot heated
throughout, about 3 minutes constantly tossing.
Add shoyu/sugar/wine mixture and ginger. Stir to coat pork and bamboo shoots. Cook
together another 2 minutes then toss with sesame oil. Serve with rice and enjoy even if you didn’
t have to harvest the bamboo yourself.
A Plant for all Seasons