Any guesses what this is? I’m not asking the Asians or the world travelers now. Having only eaten this plant from a can or cooked into a stir fry in the states and Europe, always in unrecognizable rectangular-shaped, thin slices, I never imagined it looked like this in real life. It’s a bamboo shoot. They’re in season now, and being a Kyoto specialty, Nishiki market’s shops have mounds and mounds of them for outrageous prices. Why the high prices? Because they are most tender and have to be dug up while still underground before they reach the sunlight in the early early morning, and bamboo can grow a meter in one day. I never thought I could afford one…
Until one fine day last week, I was walking through Nishiki market on my way home from work and I happened to see a small basket containing three at a small vegetable shop. The price tag said 525 yen, and I could hardly believe I could get even one much less three of them for that price. I incredulously had to reaffirm by asking the shopkeeper. Yes, they were 525 yen, and although they were a bit smaller than the giants at some other stores, they were being sold for less than half the normal price. I bought them without thinking twice and far from regretted it.
As I was packing my treasure away, the shopkeeper gave me a small bag of sawdust-like powder and gave me a bunch of instructions on keeping them for up to a week. Being far too ecstatic with my find, I hardly listened and didn’t ask him to explain again. Half way home my dream bubble burst and I panicked. How was I going to cook these things?!?
After a bunch of e-mails to my host mother’s cell phone, I apparently still messed up the procedure for preparing them for storage. You’re supposed to peel them and boil them as soon as you get them home!!! After that you can keep them in clean water, replacing the water every day, for about a week like the shopkeeper had said.
Lucky me, my host mother showed me the prep process on my next visit to her home. She chopped off the tip of the shoot, pushing her knife through all the tough leaf tips at an angle. Then, she cut along the body of the shoot from tip to base, making the cut deeper at the tip than the base. Shoving her fingers into the the cut, she pried away all the tough leaves in one go. (It had taken me a much long time taking off one leaf at a time the day before.) The delicate parts of the leaves that stick to the shoot when you pull the rest off don’t have to be laboriously peeled. The purple bulbous bits at the bottom of the shoot, however, should be cut off. For a good picture of the cutting procedure, look here.
After peeling them, the bamboo shoots should be boiled for 30 to 40 minutes in water with the sawdust like powder, which is actually rice husks (米ぬかkomenuka). Skim off any foam that forms on the surface. Turn off the heat and let the bamboo shoots cool with the water until they reach room temperature. Then put them in a container with fresh water to go in the fridge.
My favorite bamboo shoot dish is the simple bamboo shoot rice or takenoko gohan. The fresh shoots can really shine with the white rice, giving it an occasional crunch and a subtle bamboo shoot flavor that is much gentler than the stuff from the can. Leftovers can be made into delicious rice balls the next day (recipe included).
Takenoko Gohan (竹の子ご飯)
1 bamboo shoot, prepared as described above (If you want to use canned or vacuum sealed bamboo shoots, try boiling them for a little while to get the harshly flavored liquids out.)
3 or 4 shiitake mushrooms, finely chopped
3 tablespoons soy sauce
a pinch of salt
2 1/2 cups rice, cooked
3 cups water
Chop the bamboo shoot into quarters and then into small slices and put them with the mushroom pieces in the boiling water. Add the soy sauce and salt to the water and allow the liquids to boil down to about 1/3 the original mass.
Add the cooked rice to the pot and mix well, using slicing motions and by turning the rice on itself gently so as not to break the kernels.
Any leftovers can be made into rice balls (おにぎり onigiri) the next day. Make your hands wet with cold water and sprinkle salt on them. Grab about 1/2 cup of rice and shape it into a ball or triangle. Wrap with nori seaweed and eat!