Locally Grown Bamboo Shoots Are A Seasonal Delicacy

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in: World w/recipe

Bamboo shoots with rice. Credit: Sonoko Sakai

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. 

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Bamboo shoots. Credit: Sonoko Sakai

My family would make a whole meal out of fresh bamboo shoots to celebrate the season. Fresh bamboo shoots have a mildly sweet flavor and like asparagus or artichoke are enjoyed for their good texture.

Nutrition

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.

The tips are trimmed and discarded. The bamboo shoots are then precooked in rice bran (nuka) water to remove the bitterness, or aku, for about 30 minutes, or until they are tender and a skewer can easily go through the meat. The rice bran, which is the ingredient for making fermented nuka pickles, is available at Japanese markets. The nuka water is discarded after cooking the bamboo, and the cooked bamboo is rinsed and ready to go for another round of cooking.

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

Serves 4

This recipe can be made in a rice cooker, donabe rice cooker or saucepan. Follow the rice manufacturer’s cooking instructions for optimum results.

Ingredients

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

Directions 

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

Ingredients

3 cups filtered water

1 piece of konbu, 4 inches long

2 dried shiitake mushrooms

Directions

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.


Zester Daily contributor Sonoko Sakai is a Japanese food educator, writer and producer who divides her time between Los Angeles; Tehachapi, Calif.; and Tokyo. She has contributed stories and recipes to the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune and Saveur. She is passionate about making soba by hand and is the founder of Common Grains.

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Comments

Amelia Saltsman
on: 6/1/13
I'm so excited to hear that Jeff is selling fresh bamboo shoots! It goes along with his dedication to producing dried persimmons, hoshigaki, in the fall. And very good to know that he will ship to southern California, since he doesn't travel to our markets in the spring! It wasn't until I saw fresh bamboo at the Nishiki market in Kyoto and tasted them that I finally understood what all the fuss is about! They are so special!
alissa
on: 10/2/14
hi, how can i buy the fresh bamboo shoots ? thany you

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