The wonder grass
The practical and esthetic importance of bamboo is deeply rooted in the spirit of Japan, as well as its cuisine.
A quick look around a typical Japanese home reveals bamboo in all of its forms, from bamboo lattices for the walls to bamboo leaves wrapped around the day’s desserts. Its quick growth, light weight and strength all make it an ideal plant for a myriad of uses, and the warm and humid climate of southern Japan is the perfect place for bamboo to thrive. It might surprise you to know that you may have even eaten bamboo without realizing it.
The only edible part of bamboo is the shoot, or takenoko (literally meaning “bamboo children”), an indispensable spring vegetable in Japanese cuisine.
These young bamboos are harvested before they are two weeks old. You can tell they’re ripe for digging up when they’re just poking out of the ground—but because they grow so quickly, the harvest period is a very narrow window in early spring. In fact, bamboo can grow up to 90 cm a day, so if you blink you might miss your harvesting chance! If the window is missed and the bamboo shoots are too mature, they lose their juiciness and become bitter and overly fibrous.
Like most things, bamboo shoots are the tastiest when they’re fresh, but they’re easier to find here in Canada pre-boiled and in cans or vacuumsealed packages. If you’re lucky enough to get your hands on some fresh bamboo shoots, though, it’s important to first peel all the husk (like corn) and boil the shoots for about 20 minutes to make them tender and cook away their bitterness.
Add rice bran to the water, or you can alternatively use water that was used for rinsing rice. The starchy water helps to soften the bamboo shoots and absorbs their bitter toxins.
Bamboo shoots don’t have an overpowering flavour so they’re perfect additions to dishes like stir-fries, soups and rice, and their crunchy texture adds a lot of fun to your meal.
Strips of pickled bamboo shoots or menma are a staple condiment in ramen, and bamboo shoots in chili oil are popularly coupled with rice. A signature spring dish is takenoko rice, which is rice cooked with bamboo shoots. A great source of potassium and vitamin B-6, bamboo shoots are effective in reducing blood pressure—and because they are low in calories, you don’t have to feel guilty about piling them onto your plate.
Each year, only a third of bamboo shoots survive as healthy adult bamboo, so if you happen to have some in your yard, you can consider yourself a backyard farmer and harvest up to 70 per cent of them while maintaining healthy forest growth.
Takenoko is so prevalent in Japan that you even find it in idioms. The phrase “takenoko lifestyle” refers to people who sell off their things a little at a time to stay financially afloat, inspired by peeling off the many layers of bamboo shoots. “Bamboo shoots after the rain” is a phrase used to describe a chain reaction following a trigger, and refers to the sudden growth spurt that bamboo shoots often have after a rainfall.
A littel taste of kombu
From little child to strong and sturdy in just a few months, pound by pound bamboo is stronger than steel. Bamboo shoots have been an indispensible part of Japanese cuisine for centuries and are packed with fun facts.
- A veteran bamboo farmer can identify bamboo shoots from slight mounds on the ground.
- A popular children’s snack since the’70s called Takenoko no Sato features little chocolate-covered cookies shaped like bamboo shoots.
- When cooking fresh shoots, put the takenoko in the water before it comes to a boil to get the best flavour.
- Bamboo is highly sustainable because of its fast growth—some good news for you eco-conscious eaters!
- In a study from 2011, it was reported that bamboo shoots have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects.
- Bamboo shoots are a common ingredient in countries all over Asia, including China, Nepal, Indonesia and many more!