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Springtime for bamboo

by Makiko Itoh

Few plants are as useful as bamboo. A member of the grass family, it is fast growing and very prolific given the right growing conditions, which makes it eco-friendly too.

The bamboo plant is indispensable in the Japanese kitchen, where every part of it is used. The leaves and bark are employed as wrappers, as well as in cooking. (Those little green leaf-shaped pieces of plastic called baran that are used as a divider in bentō boxes and takeout sushi are designed to emulate the shape of bamboo leaves — better sushi places still use the real thing.) The stalks of the plants are used as food containers, and thin skewers made of bamboo are used for everything from yakitori chicken to testing if your cake is done. So many kitchen implements are made from bamboo that it’s impossible to list them all, but it’s particularly hard to imagine making proper sushi rolls without a makisu, a bamboo sushi roll mat.

Although the tender bark is edible too, the most widely eaten parts of the bamboo plant are the shoots, which grow underground in the spring. Edible bamboo shoots are mentioned in the Kojiki, which was written in the early 8th century, but they weren’t widely eaten until the mid-1600s (early Edo Period), when a tender variety called mōsōchiku was introduced from China.

Fresh bamboo shoots are so strongly identified with springtime that they are accepted as a kigo (seasonal word) in haiku. Nowadays you can have precooked bamboo shoots year round, but in the days before canning, bamboo shoots were an eagerly anticipated sign of the end of winter. The best bamboo shoots are said to be those ones grown around Kyoto, with those grown in northern Kyushu also strong contenders.

Freshly dug bamboo shoots can be simply sliced and eaten raw, and fans of fresh raw bamboo shoots go foraging in the mountains just to enjoy this delicacy. But the longer the shoots are out of the ground the more fibrous they become, and the oxalic and phenolic acids become more pronounced, making them taste bitter unless they are cooked.

In Japan, this is most commonly done by boiling them in a mild alkaline solution — usually the white, cloudy water produced from rinsing rice, or plain water with some rice bran included, plus a sliced red chili pepper. It is believed that the outer skin of the bamboo shoots helps to tenderize them, so the skin is left on when the shoots are simmered.

Another method is to marinate the sliced bamboo shoots in grated daikon radish, which is also mildly alkaline, and preserves a crunchy texture. Still another way to reduce the bitterness is to cook the sliced bamboo shoots in oil, by deep frying them for example — this method is used in Chinese cooking.

Takenoko gohan (rice with bamboo shoots) is a quintessential springtime dish. For the recipe on this page, you could use bamboo shoots that are placed in water from rinsed rice and a sliced red chili pepper, and simmer them until a skewer goes through them easily. You can use ready-cooked bamboo shoots sold in vacuum packs or cans, but do try to make this with fresh bamboo shoots when they are in season. The rice is garnished with another quintessential springtime food — kinome, the tender young shoots of the sanshō pepper tree. Give it a go, and bring spring to your kitchen.

Makiko Itoh is the author of “The Just Bento Cookbook” (Kodansha USA). She writes about bentō lunches at www.justbento.com and about Japanese cooking and more at www.justhungry.com.


Recipe: takenoko gohan (rice with bamboo shoots)

Serves 4-6

Ingredients

2 rice-cooker cups (360 ml) of uncooked white rice

300 g (about 1 small) cooked bamboo shoot

450 ml water

1 tbsp vegetable or sesame oil

3 tbsp soy sauce, usukuchi (light soy sauce) preferred

3 tbsp sake

A pinch of salt

Kinome shoots as garnish

1. Rinse the rice several times, and drain it into a sieve. (You can use the white water from the first rinse to cook the bamboo shoot.) Leave it in the sieve for about half an hour.

2. Cut the bamboo shoot up into small pieces. Don’t cut it up too small, since you want to enjoy the texture.

3. Put all the ingredients into a rice-cooker on the regular rice setting. Serve topped with small sprigs of kinome.

  • Charlie Sommers

    I developed a taste for bamboo shoots during the eight years I lived in Tokyo. Many years later I am in Tennessee and have found that the local bamboo, which I always knew as cane is also edible. My son-in-law has a lot of it growing on his property and we are eagerly awaiting the first shoots of spring so we can give them a try.

    Wish us luck.

  • mooch92

    Can’t get fresh bamboo shoots where I live and the tinned ones are inedible! Sad. Gorgeous photo at the top of the column!