Canned Won't Do: Spring Brings Fresh Bamboo Shoots

Bamboo shoots (bottom) with seasonal asparagus and green garlic
Laura McCandlish for NPR

Get recipes for Boiled Fresh Bamboo Shoots (above, pictured with seasonal green garlic and asparagus for stir-frying), Steamed Rice With Bamboo Shoots (Takenoko Gohan), Sparkling Broth With Bamboo, and Seasonal Salad With Bamboo.

Fresh "sugar shoots" are shown at Dain Sansome's Bamboo Valley Farm in Albany, Ore., which grows some 20 varieties of bamboo.

Fresh "sugar shoots" are shown at Dain Sansome's Bamboo Valley Farm in Albany, Ore., which grows some 20 varieties of bamboo. Laura McCandlish for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Laura McCandlish for NPR

Japanese culinary maven Elizabeth Andoh had a revelation at her mother-in-law's table on Shikoku island more than 40 years ago: Freshly dug bamboo shoots bear no relation to the stringy, bland canned version served at most Chinese restaurants. Her first taste of the peak-of-spring terrestrial shoots was simmered with wakame seaweed fresh from the bay.

"I was just absolutely blown away by both of them and became addicted to both [the bamboo and the seaweed]," says Andoh, who uses every morsel of the fresh shoots in her new frugal, yet by no means austere, cookbook Kansha: Celebrating Japan's Vegan and Vegetarian Traditions.

Throughout Asia, diners anticipate the emergence of fresh bamboo shoots — like our asparagus, rhubarb or morel mushrooms — as a fleeting sign of spring. The aromatic, just-cooked shoots taste like artichoke, corn and hearts of palm. Bamboo, perhaps surprisingly, is a member of the grass family. The plant's prolific (often invasive) hardwood stalks yield tender canes when harvested, at less than two weeks old, from March through June.

Dain Sansome stands near bamboo stalks on the 9-acre farm he owns with his wife, Suya, who is Japanese.

Dain Sansome stands near bamboo stalks on the 9-acre farm he owns with his wife, Suya, who is Japanese. Laura McCandlish for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Laura McCandlish for NPR

Chef Naoko Tamura struggled to find a local source of fresh shoots after relocating to Portland, Ore., from Tokyo four years ago. Bamboo growers didn't want to sacrifice potential timber for food. She had grown up digging bamboo in her grandmother's garden. They would throw the whole shoots on the grill. Then they'd dip the fragrant flesh, steamed in its skin, in wasabi and soy sauce, like sushi.

Eventually, in Oregon's mid-Willamette Valley, Tamura chanced upon a willing young bamboo enthusiast from Minnesota and his Japanese wife who live on a 9-acre farm. Now Naoko's seasonal, organic cafe (my favorite place for lunch in Portland) serves special bamboo bento boxes each spring. She'll feature the shoots in each course: on top of salad, in a seaweed soup, steamed with rice and braised with vegetables.

I recently visited Tamura's source, Bamboo Valley Farm, near my home in Corvallis. Owners Dain and Suya Sansome grow some 20 varieties, mostly for landscaping. But they sell the fresh shoots, which they stir-fry with sesame oil or with asparagus, garlic and olive oil. Dain dug me fresh, purplish-black skinned ones from the fastest-growing Moso variety (that grow up to 2 feet a day) and lighter-colored sweet shoot bamboo, famed for its less acrid taste. Digging for shoots in the wood chips about the towering culms (the main stems of bamboo) felt like foraging for truffles.

About The Author

Laura McCandlish is a Corvallis, Ore.-based radio producer and food writer. She reports for NPR member station KLCC in Eugene and hosts a monthly food show on Portland radio station KBOO. She contributes to Edible Portland and The Oregonian's FOODday section. She blogs at baltimoregon.com.

Dain bit into a sprouting sweet shoot in the field. Still, it's best to avoid eating bamboo shoots raw. Many are bitter, indicating the presence of hydrocyanic acid. For this reason, lawyers advised Andoh to omit fresh bamboo recipes in her previous cookbook, Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen. However, the widespread practice of boiling the shoots first with rice bran flour (nuka) or in the starchy water captured while rinsing rice neutralizes the toxin. Then this potassium- and fiber-rich food, which is very low in calories and fat, is ready to use.

You might stumble upon the fresh shoots at a farmers market, or try well-trafficked Asian markets, especially in Chinatowns. Or search for a nearby grower through the local chapter of the American Bamboo Society. If necessary, you can find refrigerated, vacuum-packed parboiled whole shoots, preserved in citric acid and often imported from China, for sale at Asian markets. They can replace the home-boiled ones in recipes.

Then, however, you'll miss out on the spirit of gratitude invoked in Andoh's new cookbook Kansha (which means "appreciation"), an ode to Buddhist-inspired Japanese vegan cuisine. The bamboo harvest seems especially precious this year. Shoots from nuclear disaster zone Fukushima prefecture were found tainted with high levels of radiation; the foraged shoots in Nagano are also questionable. Andoh says most of the commercial bamboo crop, grown primarily in Kyoto and on Kyushu, is fine.

It's a poignant reminder to savor these springtime foods before you blink, and they disappear again until next year.

Boiled Fresh Bamboo Shoots

Fresh (sometimes foraged) bamboo shoots are available only for a fleeting season. In Kansha: Celebrating Japan's Vegan and Vegetarian Traditions (Ten Speed Press 2010) author Elizabeth Andoh urges readers to "forget any and all taste memory of the canned stuff." It's worth experiencing the pleasure of eating still-warm tender inner bamboo leaves — a delicacy like artichokes and fresh hearts of palm — straight from the pot. The starchy oils in the rice bran neutralize hydrocyanic acid, the toxin found in most bamboo shoots. Andoh says the hot peppers discourage spoilage and add a spicy kick.

The fresh bamboo shoots are boiled in water, along with rice bran flour, or nuka, to neutralize toxins and chilies to add spice and prevent spoilage.

The fresh bamboo shoots are boiled in water, along with rice bran flour, or nuka, to neutralize toxins and chilies to add spice and prevent spoilage. Courtesy of Elizabeth Andoh hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Elizabeth Andoh

Makes about 2 1/2 pounds

2 or 3 small fresh bamboo shoots, 2 1/2 pounds total weight

1/3 cup dried rice bran powder (nuka)*

2 small dried whole Asian chili peppers (the Japanese one is called tōgarashi)*

*Available at Asian markets.

With a kitchen brush, scrub away any earth that may still be clinging to the shoots. Peel away and discard a few of the tough, darker outer leaves, rinsing away any soil that may be trapped between the layers. Cut off a sliver on the diagonal from the very top of each shoot, exposing an elliptical pattern of concentric rings.

Trim the base with a straight cut, removing a circular slice about 1/8 inch thick. Lay the shoot on a cutting board upright, with the tip at top and the base at bottom. Holding the shoot securely to keep it from rolling about, make a shallow slash lengthwise, from the narrow tip to the wider base. Do not cut the shoot in half. You want to slash it only, which will permit better circulation of moist heat during cooking (and make peeling easier later on).

Place the bamboo shoots in a deep pot and add the rice bran, chili peppers and enough water to cover. Ideally, the shoots will fit snugly in the bottom of the pot, with plenty of headroom. Top with a colander turned upside down to keep the shoots submerged in the bubbling liquid.

Peeling back the outer leaves of the bamboo shoot reveals the delicate champagne-colored inner leaves (top left). The shoots are sliced vertically after they're boiled and cooled. i i

Peeling back the outer leaves of the bamboo shoot reveals the delicate champagne-colored inner leaves (top left). The shoots are sliced vertically after they're boiled and cooled. Laura McCandlish for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Laura McCandlish for NPR
Peeling back the outer leaves of the bamboo shoot reveals the delicate champagne-colored inner leaves (top left). The shoots are sliced vertically after they're boiled and cooled.

Peeling back the outer leaves of the bamboo shoot reveals the delicate champagne-colored inner leaves (top left). The shoots are sliced vertically after they're boiled and cooled.

Laura McCandlish for NPR

Place the pot over medium heat, bring the water to a boil and adjust the heat to maintain a steady simmer. Do not let it boil vigorously. Cook the shoots for 45 to 50 minutes, or until a skewer or wooden toothpick meets no resistance as it passes through the core. Remove from the heat and allow the shoots to cool, lidded, in the cooking liquid.

When the shoots are cool enough to handle, lift them from the cooking liquid. Rinse away the excess rice bran under cold running water. Discard the liquid in the pot, and soak the pot in sudsy warm water for 30 minutes or more to make cleaning it easier.

Peel off each shoot's tough outer leaves, saving the delicious pale champagne-colored layers just beneath. Next, shave off any large, pebbly bumps from the outer surface of the shoot's broad base. Stand the shoot upright, measure about 3/4 inch from the bottom, and slice it off horizontally. Cut this base section in half vertically to expose a pattern of horizontal ledges and hollows inside. Try to remove any white, chalky material (not harmful to eat) caught in the hollows between the ledges.

Turn your attention to the tapered portion of the shoot that remains. Separate it into the tip (the top 1/2 inch or so) and the midsection. Now the shoots are ready to use in recipes.

Steamed Rice with Bamboo Shoots (Takenoko Gohan)

This seems to be the most ubiquitous way the Japanese use fresh bamboo shoots. The recipe is adapted from Chef Naoko Bento Cafe in Portland, Ore., and from Elizabeth Andoh's more meticulous approach. Andoh first briefly simmers the shoots in kelp stock (see below) with mirin and light soy sauce before steaming them and the rice in that reserved broth. The shoots remain crisp while subtly perfuming the rice. My leftovers made a delicious base for fried rice the next day, stir-fried with spring greens, leeks, fried egg and tofu.

Japanese ex-pats are especially nostalgic for the popular dish of Steamed Rice with Bamboo Shoots (Takenoko Gohan), accented here with ground sansho pepper and black sesame seeds. i i

Japanese ex-pats are especially nostalgic for the popular dish of Steamed Rice with Bamboo Shoots (Takenoko Gohan), accented here with ground sansho pepper and black sesame seeds. Laura McCandlish for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Laura McCandlish for NPR
Japanese ex-pats are especially nostalgic for the popular dish of Steamed Rice with Bamboo Shoots (Takenoko Gohan), accented here with ground sansho pepper and black sesame seeds.

Japanese ex-pats are especially nostalgic for the popular dish of Steamed Rice with Bamboo Shoots (Takenoko Gohan), accented here with ground sansho pepper and black sesame seeds.

Laura McCandlish for NPR

Makes 4 to 6 servings

2 cups Japanese-style short-grain white rice

2 cups water

2 teaspoons cooking sake or mirin (Japanese rice wines)

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 pound boiled bamboo shoots, preferably from the center or tip section, thinly sliced into half-moons (cut lengthwise to look like little combs with teeth)

2 ounces dried kelp seaweed (kombu)*

10 to 12 sprigs fresh sansho leaves (from the prickly ash plant called ki no me) or 1/4 teaspoon kona-zansho (from that plant's ground pepper berries) mixed with a pinch of salt*

2 tablespoons chopped fresh arugula or other green herb, for garnish

*Available at Asian or specialty markets.

Put raw rice kernels in large bowl and cover with cold water. Swish the rice vigorously, until the water clouds with starch. Drain washed rice in fine-mesh strainer and return to bowl to repeat procedure with fresh cold water. Continue for three or four washings, until the water becomes clear.

Place the washed and drained rice in a three-quart lidded pot or rice cooker. Add water, sake, soy sauce and sea salt and let sit for 10 minutes before cooking, to ensure tender grains. Then place sliced bamboo shoots and dried kelp on top. Switch rice cooker on, or cover pot, place over high heat, and cook for about 5 minutes, or until the liquid begins to bubble. Adjust the heat to maintain a steady but not-too-vigorous boil and continue to cook, covered, for about 5 minutes longer, or until all the liquid has been absorbed. Remove pot from the heat and allow the rice to steam with retained heat for another 10 to 15 minutes.

Remove kelp, mix the rice carefully with a paddle-like spoon to distribute the bamboo shoots and serve. Garnish individual portions with fresh sansho leaves (from the prickly ash plant called ki no me) or with the plant's ground pepper berries (known as kona-zansho). Or accent with chopped fresh arugula or other green spring herb.

Sparkling Broth With Bamboo

I couldn't get over the flavorful stock that emerged from just soaking glutamate-rich kombu, Japan's favorite sea vegetable, in water. Normally, it's enhanced with bonito (dried tuna flakes) for that staple dashi broth, but not in Japanese culinary authority Elizabeth Andoh's new vegan/vegetarian Kansha ("appreciation") cookbook.

Andoh calls for cutting the soup's vegetables into paper-thin sen-giri ("one-thousand slices") strips. Unlike Western up-and-down chopping that flexes the wrist, this Japanese knife technique keeps the wrist steady as the forearm pushes forward, making thread-thin slices. Stack the slices and repeat, pushing away, not down. I failed to cut the ingredients with Andoh's precision and clouded the pure broth with more bamboo and snow peas than she indicated but still loved the umami-rich broth. Kelp stock requires advance preparation.

Sparkling Broth With Bamboo i i
Laura McCandlish for NPR
Sparkling Broth With Bamboo
Laura McCandlish for NPR

Makes 4 servings

2 dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked in 1 cup hot water for 30 minutes

1 sheet thin fried tofu*

Splash of sake

3 cups stock, preferably basic kelp stock but any bouillon is fine (recipe follows )

1 generous teaspoon light-colored soy sauce

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 ounce boiled fresh bamboo shoots, cut into thread-thin strips, preferably from the bottom section

1 tablespoon shredded carrot, cut into thread-thin strips (see headnote)

2 or 3 snow peas, strings and stems removed, blanched for 1 minute, and cut into thread-thin strips on the diagonal (see headnote)

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

*Available in refrigerated or freezer section of Asian market.

Basic Kelp Stock

1 piece kombu*, about 1 1/2 inches wide by 4 inches long

4 cups water, preferably soft tap or filtered

*Dried kelp seaweed available at Asian or natural foods stores.

Place the kombu in a large glass jar. Pour in the water, and cover with a lid or plastic wrap. Covering the jar prevents surrounding odors from entering the stock and helps trap the good seashore aromas.

To extract the most flavor, allow the kombu to sit submerged in the water at room temperature for at least 30 minutes or up to 12 hours before using the stock. If you prefer to refrigerate the stock from the start, allow the kombu to soak for at least 8 hours or up to 48 hours before using the stock.

Remove the softened kombu from the jar after the flavor has been extracted from it (within 2 days). The stock can be kept, refrigerated, for 4 to 5 days before using.

For The Soup

Drain the mushrooms, reserving the soaking liquid. Trim off the stems, rinse the caps to remove any gritty material and squeeze out the excess liquid. Slice the caps into thread-thin strips (see headnote) and set aside.

Bring a small saucepan filled with water to a boil (this can be the same water that was used to blanch the snow peas). Add the tofu and blanch for 30 seconds to remove excess oil, or until beads of oil float on the water's surface. Drain the tofu, and when cool enough to handle, use paper towels to press out and blot away excess water and oil. Cut the tofu lengthwise into 3 or 4 strips, then cut crosswise into short, thin strips. Blot the strips again with paper towels.

Place a 3-quart pot over medium-high heat. Add the fried tofu and saute with the oil that still clings to it (even after pressing and blotting, some oil will remain). When the tofu is slightly browned and aromatic, add the shiitake strips and saute for 1 minute. Add the sake and deglaze the pot, stirring to dislodge any browned bits.

Add the mushroom liquid and the kombu stock and bring to a boil. Skim away any clouds of froth with a fine-mesh skimmer, then adjust the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Season the broth with the soy sauce and salt. Add the bamboo shoot strips and simmer for 1 minute. Add the carrot strips and simmer for 30 seconds more. Skim away any froth.

Remove the pot from the heat, add the snow peas and immediately ladle into bowls. If possible, use 4 deep, lidded Japanese-style soup bowls, which will ensure the soup is served piping hot and will trap the aromas. Grind the pepper over the soup, lid the bowls and serve immediately.

Seasonal Salad With Bamboo

Most bento box salads are an iceberg lettuce afterthought. Chef Naoko Tamura's, however, celebrate peak-of-season Willamette Valley ingredients at her Portland, Ore., cafe. I used young Walla Walla onion with green stalks still attached. Any spring vegetables would be good here: blanched asparagus, fennel, pea greens. Chef Naoko tops this salad with the ancient food known as frikeh, field-burned green wheat from Ayers Creek Farm near Portland. You can find imported, packaged frikeh at Middle Eastern markets.

Seasonal Salad i i
Laura McCandlish for NPR
Seasonal Salad
Laura McCandlish for NPR

Makes 4 servings

For The Dressing

1/4 cup soy sauce

1/8 cup rice vinegar

1 tablespoon canola oil

Mix soy and vinegar together, then slowly whisk in oil. Set aside.

For The Salad

4 ounces young sweet onion, thickly sliced

16 sugar snap peas

1/2 bunch kale raab or young beet or turnip greens

1/2 head green lettuce, romaine or butter, plus enough seasonal local salad mix for 4 portions

2 ounces boiled bamboo shoot tender tips, thinly sliced

Handful of frikeh (roasted green wheat), optional garnish

Soak the sliced onion in water for 5 minutes and drain.

Steam the peas and greens for 1 minute and cool.

Wash lettuce and salad mix and drain. Hand cut lettuce into strips. Combine the lettuce, salad mix, cooled blanched greens and onion, then give the dressing a few whisks and toss it with the salad before plating.

Top with tender bamboo tips and garnish with frikeh if available.

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