To make the most of the good weather that we’re enjoying this Spring, my family and I decided to tip toe amongst the Tulips that are in blossom at the moment at Expo Park (万博公園, banpaku koen). As we were walking around the Western side of the park, we decided to take a few photos outside the chikurin (竹林, bamboo forest). It was then that for the first time, I noticed a couple of Takenoko (たけのこ, baby bamboo shoots) sneaking up through the floor of the forest. Sure, I’ve seen fully grown bamboo trees many times and I’ve even enjoyed some noodles washed down the inner side of a bamboo trunk (流しそうめん, nagashisomen) before, but for some reason, I guess I’ve never walked by a bamboo forest in the Spring before. Being a big fan of bamboo shoots on the dinner table, I joked to my wife that we should sneak into the chikurin and take a few home. As you can guess, the idea didn’t get very much air time.
You’ll appreciate my surprise when I discovered that the baiten (売店, kiosk) next to the front gate was selling them! I guess that the managers of the park pull up the unnecessary shoots as part of their kanbatsu (間伐, optimizing the thickness of the forest) and sell them to raise a little extra cash. (Just in case they didn’t already make enough money from the relatively high entrance fee.) Evidently, I’d seen bamboo shoots for sale in the Supermarket before but had never twigged to what they actually were so always walk straight past them like I do at the Natto (納豆, rotted beans) section. Unlike that Takenoko salada that you buy at your local 7-11, a fresh bamboo shoot isn’t beige (it’s a deep, dark brown) and it is still covered in several layers of overlapping sheaths. To state the obvious, that is why I hadn’t realized up until today. I can’t say that I ever thought that stippy.com would ever turn into a cooking site, but this is the story of how I lost my bamboo virginity. If it took me over a decade of living in this country to learn how to skin a bamboo shoot, so I figured that it was worth sharing the story. (Oh, and you can click on all of the photos to see bigger versions!)
When you’re out on your first shoot shopping trip, it’s probably safest to buy a bigger takenoko than you think you need. By the time you remove all of the outer sheath layers, you won’t be left with much. A medium sized shoot (about 500 yen) will only be enough for one meal for a family of four. Look for a freshly cut shoot by looking at the colour of the dots at the foot (wide end) of the shoot. Freshly cut shoots will have spots which are a reddish purple colour (like mine in the photo) whereas the dots will have turned brown in an old shoot. Strong, pointy blades on the outer sheath is also a good sign of being fresh. The other trick you can try out is to hold a few shoots in your hands of similar sizes. The heavier the shoot, the more moist it is, hence the fresher it is. Old shoots that have been lying around for a while will dry up and hence weigh less.
While you can boil up your takenoko as it is, unless you’ve got a huge pot then you’ll probably want to tear off the inedible outer sheaths. According to the old lady who sold me the shoots, it tastes better if you boil the whole lot (without pealing back the sheaths) but I can assure it is pretty impractical. You’ll probably find that there were an awful lot more layers of sheaths on your shoot than you’d expected. As can be seen in these rudimentary before/after photos:
I think that my shoot shrunk by at least 50% by the time I’d removed all the layers. You know you’ve reached the edible part of the shoot when there is no more hair at the top (my photo of the “peeled” shoot wasn’t quite finished peeling, although I couldn’t bring myself to peel away anymore of the hard earned shoot).
Just like you would with any other root veggie, make sure that you bring to boil with the takenoko in the saucepan from the beginning (ie. While the water is still cold). After bringing it to the boil, you then want to slowly cook the shoot for another 45 minutes or so. The whole thing looks pretty disgusting with the bran floating in the saucepan but you wont notice it after you’ve washed it all off at the end.
Before you rush to rinse your bamboo shoot, allow it to cool naturally in the same saucepan (yes, with all of the gunk) that you boiled it in. If you rinse the takenoko before it’s cooled it will often split into pieces. It’s easiest to just leave it in the pot over night and rinse it in the morning. A cooked shoot will last a fair while in the fridge if you store it in water and remember to change the water once a day. Takenoko goes pretty well in any kind of stir fry that you can think of. If you’re stuck for a recipe, try simmering your takenoko with a touch of mirin and a healthy handful of wakame seaweed in some dashi (だし, soup stock) for a couple of minutes. This time I made my dashi from konbu (昆布, kelp) and threw in a bit of goya (ゴーヤ, bitter gourd) and katsuobushi (かつお節, dried bonita flakes) for a bit of Hattori Hanzo style Okinawan punch. If anyone else has some other good recipes for takenoko then I’d love to hear about them in the comments section – after all, there is still an entire month of fresh takenoko season to go this year!