Bamboo shoots are a staple ingredient in Asia. The fastest growing grass in the world, used in numerous soups and as a standalone vegetable. Bamboo, with all its uses will surely take over the world?
This is perhaps the only ingredient that you can say that one minute you are using to build your house and then the next minute eating it for energy to complete your house building!
Bamboo naturally contains a chemical that turns into cyanide in the stomach, which can kill people if eaten raw in any significant quantity. Nevertheless with extensive boiling for several hours this chemical is destroyed so that bamboo can be eaten. Bamboo shoots are used in many dishes across Asia, in particular in Laos, Nepal and China. Rural areas rely on this food source as it is plentiful and grows quickly.
In Laos each family knew of their own clump of bamboo to visit and harvest the new shoots for that day.
Only the tips are eaten as they have not yet developed the fibres that make bamboo so useful in construction. Mature bamboo canes are extremely stringy and inedible.
Initially the outer skin of the bamboo is burnt in an open fire. This burns off the small hairs that are an irritant and produce a rash if handled with bare hands. Then the bamboo is trimmed to the point where resistance from the fibres is low enough and boiled for 4- 5 hours.
Ready to use the bamboo is removed from the water and left to cool before being used in a dish and being recooked with added ingredients.
The most popular way to use bamboo shoots is in a soup. Bamboo has a distinctive yet delicate flavour that tastes of ‘vegetation’. The smell of cooked bamboo is stronger than the taste. Yet bamboo is also pickled and fermented, which produces a stronger flavour.
Fresh bamboo shoots unsurprisingly have a fresher flavour. Jars of bamboo shoots are reasonable to use, especially if the water has been unsalted and is used in the dish, as a lot of the flavour seeps out into the water. Today however Asian supermarkets have started to stock fresh varieties of exotic products like bamboo. We found this bamboo in a Thai supermarket in Manchester, but have also seen it in Bournemouth. You can of course find it online. Obviously it is a product that is quite time consuming to work with, but it is a really interesting occasion to experience how people in the dense Asian jungles would prepare such a common food.
As bamboo is one of the most reliable vegetables available in the jungle. In Laos bamboo soup is a particular favourite to make alongside other jungle herbs and vegetables collected during the same foraging mission. River fish can also be added, but more often than not is kept plain so the subtle flavour of the bamboo can be fully appreciated.