Taste of spring: bamboo shoots
Springtime brings new life to the fields, mountains – and bamboo groves – of Japan. And there’s no better way to revel in its arrival than by enjoying “takenoko,” or bamboo shoots, a crunchy, juicy seasonal delicacy.
Sure, you can purchase bamboo shoots that are prominently displayed at local grocery stores, street markets or alongside country roads from early April to mid-May, depending on the variety. But wouldn’t it be better to join a takenoko-digging tour through a local travel agency and experience harvesting your own to cook fresh?
Bamboo shoots are high in protein, low in calories and used in various Japanese dishes. They’re best eaten fresh – but not raw, as they are bitter and hard to digest before being properly prepared. But once they are, you’ll never go back to the canned version sold in the “ethnic food” section of your local commissary.
I recently had the opportunity to harvest fresh bamboo shoots when visiting my friend whose family owns a bamboo grove. His mother, Mariko Tsunashima, 76, is a seasoned bamboo shoot harvester who has been digging and cooking them annually for almost 60 years.
“I dig bamboo shoots to maintain my grove; otherwise the bamboo would become overgrown and take over the whole grove,” Tsunashima said. “It seems that the takenoko have come earlier than usual this year.”
Welcoming an extra pair of hands, she offered to show me the ropes.
In preparation for our task, we equipped ourselves with a “kuwa,” or Japanese hoe, for digging the shoots, gloves and bags to collect our bounty. When we got started, Tsunashima made it look easy.
She dug carefully around bamboo shoots on the ground until the whiter skin at the base was exposed. Then, using the hoe, she expertly struck the base of the shoot, lifting it out of the ground by using the awl on the back of the hoe as a lever.
She dug it out very smoothly, and it didn’t seem hard at all. But when I attempted to do the same, it took me five tries before I could dig out a whole bamboo shoot without butchering it. At least I was able to help her thin the grove.
Once we had harvested our prize, there was only one last thing to do before we could enjoy it. We processed them for cooking then my host showed me her family recipe for simmering delicious seasoned bamboo shoots.
“I think the best way to cook bamboo shoots is by simmering them,” Tsunashima said. “Each family has their own preference, but my favorite is to make bamboo shoot rice with vinegar, which is kind of like sushi rice cooked with bamboo shoots.”
Prepping the shoots:
Wash and clean the bamboo shoots.
- Cut off the tough root end and peel tough skins
- Cut tip off and make several slices
- Place the bamboo shoots in a pot of water together with 2 handfuls of rice bran (you can use rice if the shoots are fresh).
- Bring to a rolling boil then reduce heat and boil for 90 minutes.
- Remove heat and cool it for about 2 hours.
- Any remaining outer skin should now peel off easily. You can then proceed and use the bamboo shoot in various dishes. Refrigerate in the cooking water until needed.
– Mariko Tsunashima
Simmer and season
- 800 g prepared bamboo shoots
- 400 ml dashi soup
- 1 tablespoon of sugar
- 3 tablespoons of sake
- 3 tablespoons of soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon of “mirin” (sweet rice wine)
- 5 g – 10 g dried “bonito” (fish) flakes
Place the bamboo shoots and “dashi” * soup into a pot, cover and boil over a high heat. When it comes to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the sugar, sake, soy sauce and mirin and increase the heat to medium. Continue to simmer for about 45 minutes. Once the liquid has reduced to a level roughly 1 cm from the bottom of the pan, turn off the heat and remove the lid. Add the dried fish flakes, or katsuobushi, and mix well so that the flakes completely cover the bamboo shoots.
*Dashi is a soup stock used in Japanese cooking. Instant dashi powders are sold in local super markets. MSG-free dashi powder is also available at local stores.
– Mariko Tsunashima’s family recipe