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.
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.
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.