The UPS box of bamboo shoots I ordered from Jeff Rieger at Penryn Orchard Specialties arrived at my doorstep within three days of placing the order. When I opened the box, I counted more than a dozen freshly harvested shoots, each weighing between a quarter-pound and a half-pound, covered in their dark bark with moist soil still clinging around them. I was elated by their earthiness and beauty. Like cherry blossoms, these terrestrial shooters signal the arrival of spring, which comes late in the foothill of the Sierra east of Sacramento, Calif., where Rieger’s farm is located.
I never expected I would encounter fresh bamboo shoots in California. The last time I ate good bamboo in Los Angeles was when my husband brought back a big, fat shoot from Japan in his suitcase. He had dug out the shoot from a friend’s bamboo forest. It was then cooked and packaged by his friend’s wife to bring back to me as a souvenir.
Rieger grows Sweetshoot Bamboo, Phyllostachys dulcis, which is the common name of an edible variety prized for its tender texture and sweet, delicate flavor. It is one of the many plants the previous Japanese-American owner of Penryn Farms, George Oki, planted that reminded him and his wife of Japan. They also grew Asian pears, peaches, plums, persimmons and mandarins.
Rieger has had the bamboo forest for more than 10 years, but he is just starting to go into the market with the bamboo shoots in the hope of getting chefs and cooks interested in using them as a culinary ingredient. So far, it has been a challenge because local chefs don’t know how to cook with them, even though it’s easier than one might expect. It didn’t take any effort on his part to sell them to me. I even asked him if I could come to his farm to dig the shoots out of the ground.
Harvesting bamboo shoots
Every morning during harvest time in May, Rieger goes out into the bamboo forest looking for young shoots less than 1 foot tall, at which point they are sweet and tender and good for culinary purposes. The timing of the harvest is important because, depending on the variety, bamboo can grow at a speed of 2 inches per hour — up to 4 feet in one day — and they harden quickly. Unlike some trees that take decades to mature, bamboo can fully mature in as little as three years.
Bamboo: A metaphor for life
In Asia, bamboo is often used as a metaphor for life. Bamboo is flexible, it bends with wind and snow, it doesn’t break easily and it grows straight up into the sky — good qualities you would want to see in a person. That is why the Japanese eat fresh bamboo shoots in the springtime, because it’s time for new growth. Digging bamboo shoots was an annual spring activity I did with my grandmother to celebrate these qualities of life, and it’s amazing that after all these years, I tell myself to be like bamboo when things get me down. I shake off what bothers me and spring right up.
Two popular bamboo shoot dishes
One of the most popular ways to prepare fresh bamboo shoots in Japan is to make rice with them or simmer the bamboo with fresh wakame seaweed in a lightly seasoned konbu-bonito based dashi stock.
Bamboo shoots are prized not only for their flavor and texture but also for their dietary fiber, vitamins, minerals and low fat content. Some bamboos are inedible and contain toxins, but like mushrooms, you have to source the edible varieties and learn how to prepare them so you can get rid of the inherit bitterness in the bamboo shoot.
Tips for cooking bamboo shoots
The Japanese prepare bamboo shoots in two steps. First the outer layer of bamboo, the dark and hard bark, is peeled away until you reach the tender skin, which is pale and tender like heart of palm.
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You can use cooked bamboo in a variety of ways — in a stew, stir-fried, cooked with rice or in a salad. Fresh bamboo shoots are one of the most versatile ingredients you can use in your cooking, and they taste nothing like the smelly and flavorless water-packed bamboo shoots that come in a can.
Fresh Bamboo Rice
This recipe can be made in a rice cooker, donabe rice cooker or saucepan. Follow the rice manufacturer’s cooking instructions for optimum results.
2¼ cups short-grain Japanese rice, rinsed and drained
2½ cups dashi (see recipe below)
2 tablespoons Koikuchi soy sauce
1 tablespoon sake
1 tablespoon mirin
½ pound boiled bamboo shoots, thinly sliced into small pieces, about ⅛-inch thick
2 shiitake mushrooms from dashi stock, sliced thinly
Sansho pepper leaves, sliced shiso leaves, or roasted sesame seeds salt for garnish
1. Put washed rice in a rice cooker and pour dashi soup stock over the rice. Add soy sauce, sake and mirin and stir the rice.
2. Put the sliced bamboo and shiitake mushrooms on top of the rice.
3. Cook the rice as you would regular rice. When rice is done, serve in individual rice bowls.
4. Garnish with sansho leaves, shiso leaves or roasted sesame seeds and salt.
Konbu-Shitake Mushrooms Dashi Stock
Makes approximately 2½ cups
3 cups filtered water
1 piece of konbu, 4 inches long
2 dried shiitake mushrooms
1. Soak the konbu and shiitake mushrooms in water for four hours or overnight.
2. Bring to a boil in a saucepan over high heat. Just before liquid comes to a boil, remove the konbu. Lower the heat and continue simmering for another 5 minutes.
3. Turn off the heat. Save the mushrooms for the bamboo rice.