Real Food Encyclopedia | Bamboo

Many of us take bamboo for granted, and no doubt, its vast ubiquity serves to minimize its incredible beauty, its importance to ancient cultures and its usefulness. On the culinary side, its reputation is helped neither by its pervasive appearance in mediocre stir-fries, nor the fact that it often comes in a can. But look again: at the beauty of the bamboo grove and the sound that the wind makes blowing through it. At the lovely warmth of bamboo boxes, floors and utensils. At the crunchy sweetness of fresh (and yes, even canned) shoots. Bamboo should be celebrated for what it is — a unique and fascinating grass (yes, grass) with a deep history.

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Fun Facts about Bamboo: 

  • Bamboo is thought to be the fastest growing plant in the world, with some species growing two inches per hour.
  • The Chinese character for bamboo (zhu) is a pictograph showing two stalks of bamboo.
  • Tabashir is a substance found in bamboo that “The Oxford Companion to Food” says is “intermediate in nature between sugar and a stony mineral.” It is comprised mostly of silica and other trace minerals, and is said to be as rare as a pearl. Tabashir can be found by shaking bamboo stalks — if they rattle, you may have lucked out in the tabashir department. It’s used primarily medicinally.
  • Bamboo plants produce edible seeds (sometimes called “bamboo rice”) that can be cooked much like rice or other grains. Bamboo seeds are a rarity, because bamboos flower and fruit infrequently.
  • Bamboo is an important source of food for people and for animals — but two species rely upon it almost entirely. Both the endangered giant panda (native to China) and the golden bamboo lemur (native to Madagascar) feed almost exclusively on various parts of the bamboo plant. Giant pandas and bamboo lemurs are facing extinction due to the destruction of their native bamboo forests.

What to Look for When Buying Bamboo

Fresh bamboo shoots are tapered and look sort of horn-like, and vary in size from a few inches to about palm-size or even larger. When peeled, they are creamy yellow to beige in color, and may still have soil clinging to them. Bamboo shoots have a fairly sweet, earthy taste, but are special because they retain their crunchy characteristics even when cooked.

Look for fresh shoots without mushy or black spots and that feel fairly heavy for their size. They require quite a bit of processing to make them edible. Otherwise, canned bamboo shoots are a good choice — you’ll be able to find good quality canned shoots at most markets.

Sustainability of Bamboo

In general, bamboo is an environmentally friendly product, whether it is used for food or to make products like chopsticks, or building materials like flooring. Bamboo grows quickly, and in most cases does not require irrigation, fertilizer or pesticides. Bamboo forests also sequester more carbon than regular (tree-centric) forests.

Pesticides and Bamboo

All of that is not to say that bamboo is without environmental issues. According to Rebecca Clarren, writing in Salon, bamboo textiles are produced using several toxic substances, like sodium hydroxide, to turn bamboo into fiber that can be turned into clothing and other textiles. She also points out that some bamboo farmers, especially in the flooring industry, apply pesticides to boost production. If you find bamboo at your farmers’ market (may you be so lucky), ask your local bamboo farmer about his/her growing practices.

Bamboo Seasonality and Geography

Fresh bamboo shoots can be found in the US starting in the early spring. Canned shoots are available, of course, year-round. You may also be able to find frozen or refrigerated vacuum-packed bamboo shoots in well-stocked Asian markets.

Bamboo and Cultivation

Bamboo (Bambuseae) is in the grass family, and thus related to most of the major staple crops of the world, like corn, wheat, millet and barley. Bamboo plants have underground rhizomes that can spread over vast areas. These rhizomes produce large hollow stems with “joints” topped with long, thin leaves.

There are over 1,400 species of the plant, which can grow in a diverse range of climates – from temperate areas to mountains to tropical forests — here’s a map that shows the global range of bamboo. Bamboo is broadly divided into woody and herbaceous species, but only a handful of species are cultivated for food (although most are edible — just with varying levels of deliciousness). Most species contain cyanide compounds of varying levels, with species cultivated for food containing the least amount. These compounds are rendered inactive by proper processing and cooking.

Eating Bamboo

Storing Fresh Bamboo

Fresh bamboo shoots will keep in your crisper drawer for about two weeks — any longer than that and they become bitter. Keep them away from light — this, too, will make them turn from sweet to bitter.

Cooking With Bamboo

Fresh bamboo shoots require a bit of elbow grease to eat. Their outer leaves must be pared away, although some cooks leave a layer of the outer leaves on the shoots during boiling. Fresh shoots shouldn’t be eaten raw because of the cyanide compounds present in them — most preparations for fresh shoots direct you to boil them for at least 20 to 30 minutes, sometimes with rice bran, to get rid of the toxins. Here’s a great video on how to dig and prepare fresh shoots. Canned shoots should be soaked for about 10 minutes to reduce their tinny flavor.

In the US, we most often think of bamboo shoots as a quintessentially Chinese ingredient, used in stir-fries to add a bit of crunchy pop to Chinese dishes. But bamboo shoots are also used extensively in Southeast Asian cuisine. Think Thai, Burmese and Indonesian cooking, and in South Asian (Indian) cuisine. Like this Indian recipe for pork belly with fermented bamboo, or this recipe for Thai stir-fried bamboo shoots, which also includes some great photographs showing how to prep fresh shoots. The Japanese and Koreans also prize fresh bamboo shoots in their cuisines. Here are some great Japanese recipes from NPR that use fresh bamboo shoots.

You’re not limited to these cuisines, though — try tossing in chopped, cooked (or canned) bamboo shoots in salads for an added crunch, or pair with other spring vegetables like ramps or garlic scapes in a quick sauté. Or add them to your next batch of chicken soup along with a squirt of Sriracha and some chopped cilantro. Bamboo leaves are sometimes used to wrap food for steaming, and bamboo stems are also used, filled with rice or other delicacies, as steaming containers. Of course, bamboo baskets are used to steam dumplings, rice and other foods.

Preserving Bamboo

Pickled bamboo shoots are used in a number of different cuisines, including Burmese, Filipino and Chinese cooking. Fermented bamboo shoots are common in Indian cuisine as a pickle. You can also cook fresh bamboo shoots and then freeze them for longer-term storage.

Bamboo Nutrition

Bamboo shoots don’t bring much to the table, nutritionally. They are very low in calories and don’t contain that much fiber. The shoots are high in potassium, and they’ve got a bit of protein and Vitamin B6, plus some trace minerals like selenium, copper and zinc. In traditional medicine, parts of the bamboo are used to treat phlegm, fevers, inflammation and coughs.